Living through memories: Why do we long for the past?

One of our writer's delves into the reasoning behind our nostalgia

Sophie Austen
18th March 2024
Image credit: Sophie Austen
Many of us find ourselves longing for the past, seeking refuge in childhood memories through the transportive power of nostalgia. Amidst the immense uncertainty of the present moment, there is now a collective impulse to 'live' in the comfort and reliability of the past instead. 

In one moment, we may be occupied with something immediately in front of us. In the next, we are transported into a distant memory through a subconscious act of recollection – briefly returning us to our past. A pleasant experience is stored as a memory which we delight in and live in. 

We are transported into a distant memory, through a subconscious act of recollection

One reason for this may be that we often only realise that we will end up missing certain moments after we have neglected to fully appreciate them. Another reason may be the result of the cognitive bias of 'rosy retrospection'. This psychological theory identifies the trend that humans, over time, tend to recall the past more fondly than the present. 

We may live in the past as a way of trying to reconnect with our childhood self – the part of our identity that we feel less connected to as we age. In this way, longing for the past can be understood as mourning for what we fear we have lost or no longer have access to, whether that be stability or a clear sense of identity. Our personal memories provide us with a sense of continuity – the same conceptualisation of ourselves moving through time. 

Longing for the past can be understood as mourning for what we fear we have lost or no longer have access to

In our turbulent and terrifying contemporary moment, with the shadows of wars and irreversible climate change looming over us, humanity has entered a perpetual condition of feeling 'out of time'. Our lives have been branded with a tangible, premature 'expiry date' beyond our control. In these conditions, the past offers comfort in the familiar and the known – usually found in childhood memories – whilst the present remains a state of constant uncertainty and anxiety. The future is not guaranteed, and so the past, through the act of recollection, becomes a place of respite. 

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