The Error Called Nostalgia: Remember How the World Used to be Better? What if it Never Was?

One of my favourite movies of all time is ‘Midnight in Paris’. Try to forget about the director for a second and focus on the main reason I love it — nostalgia.

In the movie, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, writes a novel about a character who owns a nostalgia shop. He clearly idealises the past, especially the creative scene of Paris in the 1920s where Ernest Hemingway bumped shoulders with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Salvadore Dali and many other famous writers and artists.

In the first great scene of the movie, after a few wines and a midnight stroll, Wilson’s character somehow finds himself at a party back in the 1920s, meeting all of these icons. He also meets a beautiful and intriguing woman, Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, who idealises a time from her past, Paris, in the 1890s.

Later in the movie, they somehow step back to the 1890s together, and Adriana decides to stay there forever. Gil can’t understand this, as to him, the 1920s is the best decade and much better than his real-life back in the 21st century. Eventually, he realises that no matter where you are or what time you are in, the present will always be “a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”

Earlier in the movie, Paul, played by Michael Sheen, explains the concept further:

Nostalgia is denial — denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking — the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in — it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.

Because Paul was a jerk, what he said had little impact on Gil in that scene. Eventually, Gil does see the truth and decides to break up with his obnoxious fiance and live a more authentic life to who he truly is in the 21st century. He then meets a girl who also idealises the 1920s…

If you could go back to any time in history, would you, or would you choose to continue living in the present?

It’s an interesting thought experiment to me, but I honestly do not believe that I would, unless I had a time machine that could also bring me back to 2018 after I’d spent a week there and had seen with my own eyes what things were really like.

How are things improving?

In the book Homo Deus, the author Yuval Noah Harari said that it has only been recently that wars, famine and plague are no longer the massive problems they once were.

We have more people than ever, yet we are also much less violent than ever, with better medical care, a higher level of prosperity, a much lower infant mortality rate, and longer life expectancies than we have ever experienced in the past.

We have come a long way concerning worker’s rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, animal rights, LGBTIQ rights, and the removal of legal discrimination based on race, sex, gender, culture, religion, or disability. Virtually any form of discrimination is now frowned upon, especially from a legal perspective in Western civilisation.

In his latest book, “Enlightenment Now”, Steven Pinker shows that we are 100 times wealthier than we were 200 years ago, with a more even distribution of wealth than there used to be. Sure, the top 1% of earners still make more money than the bottom 99% combined, but things have kept improving for people at the bottom too.

The poor have more technology now than the rich could have even dreamed of 150 years ago, We have better nutrition, stimulation, sanitation, and education, and our IQs have risen by 30 points in the last 100 years. That means that someone with an average IQ of 100 these days would have been considered a genius who was smarter than 98% of the population just a century ago.

We are now 200 times less likely to die in a war than in WWII, 96% less likely to die in a car crash, 95% less likely to die while at work, and 92% less likely to die in a fire. Even nuclear weapons have decreased by 85% since their overall peak, thanks to the joint efforts of the US and Russia to give up on their arms race (Pinker, 2018).

Some say that our health is worse, but then why do we keep living longer than ever? The average life expectancy around the globe continues to rise, with some African countries increasing their life expectancy by 10 years across the last decade. This means that individuals in these countries are no closer to their death (on average) even though they are now 10 years older!

Some say that we have become more isolated and lonely. Most notably, a sociologist, Robert Putnam, wrote the best-selling book ‘Bowling Alone’. In this book, he explains that our social capital has continued to decline from its peak in 1964 until the book was published in 2000. According to his extensive data, we engage less in community life, see friends less, join clubs less, play sport less and generally do more things alone than we ever have before. We also watch a lot of TVs. As a result, Putnam says that we are suffering from higher rates of suicide and mental health disorders than ever before.

It turns out that this may not be true, however. While we have a greater awareness of mental health conditions than we had in the past, we also have more people talking about their difficulties and seeking help. So, although rates of depression and anxiety are increasing in some surveys, this could mean a higher social acceptance of these conditions and a reduction of stigma around personally admitting to having mental health difficulties.

Support for improved well-being across time is provided again by Pinker when he found that between 1981 and 2007, 45 out of 52 countries assessed exhibited higher rates of happiness in 2007 than they did in 1981. Loneliness also appears to be declining since 2000, at least amongst US college students (Pinker, 2018). So maybe the internet, smartphones and social media aren’t that bad for us after all?

There is still a long way to go, but we are further along the path towards enlightenment than we have ever been in the past, which gives me optimism for the future. Not watching the nightly news (or any network TV for that matter) helps me see things how they truly are, which only gives me hope for the future. I pray that it isn’t too late to tackle climate change and reverse some of the damage that we have done there to continue to progress into the next century!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

28 thoughts on “The Error Called Nostalgia: Remember How the World Used to be Better? What if it Never Was?

  1. Dr. Ashworth,

    I enjoy the fact that you take the time to see both sides of the argument. It shows that you are willing to question both sides of the situation and understand them. I’d like to add that in my opinion, if people are lonely then it is because technology has allowed people to obtain their wants without leaving the comfort of their home. However, I agree that thanks to our upgraded society we are also able to communicate with others and seek help.

    Overall, your post is insightful and fun to read. Thank you for sharing!

    Chris Vidal

  2. Great post. It reminds me of a TED talk from a few years ago which highlighted how today is the safest time in history to live. It also reminds me of how we are in an age of making America great again…which begs the question as to when exactly it was great(er). By most metrics the US is as great as it has ever been, however the power of nostalgia is not to be under estimated. For most the future is anxiety provoking, and it is so much easier to look to the past when they were children and felt more hopeful. Easy extrapolation from that to the assumption that if you go even further back…it must have been even better. Next question, is how do you take statistics that paint a picture that those who prioritize nostalgia “feel it”. Interesting how feeling trumps (double entendre?) facts. Interesting perspective, thanks!

  3. Agreed. Many years ago I used to be involved with medieval reenactment groups and one the things I didn’t quite gel with fellow reenactors about was that the medieval period was not better than the present. I for one rather enjoy human rights and democratic values and do not pine for the long lost days of feudalism and “might makes right”. I do however miss the 1980’s. A little bit. But not enough to want to do them over again.


    Also, thanks for the like and follow, it means a lot as I am new to WordPress.

    1. You’re welcome. I think the reason why ‘stranger things’ and ‘dazed and confused’ and ‘stand by me’ and ‘american graffiti’ and ‘now and then’ and even the latest version of ‘it’ are loved so much is because there is something about nostalgia that is super appealing. I too miss the sense of community and play that there seemed to be when I was growing up in the late 80s, early 90s. I just wonder if my memory forgets about the bad things that came along with living back then!

      1. I can relate to that and its really hard to say. I think there was a lot I just didn’t know enough about to understand or appreciate the significance of. At the same time, I appreciate the better technology. Remember beepers and dial-up AOL? There is still much to be said for 2018.

  4. Those points about there being less violence, less of a problem with wars and famine, and that there is a more even distribution of wealth than there used to be are eye-openers; I would have assumed the opposite or at least that things are little better overall. I’ll look into those two books, Homo Deus and Enlightenment Now further.

    P.S Thanks for following my blog; you’re now my 300th follower, a milestone for me although I see you recently passed the 2,000-mark, so well done there!

  5. Great points made throughout! It is amazing the rate of growth and development of he world now. I also hope it’s not too late for climate change too but with the work of some space companies such as Richard Branson’s and Elon musk, we may have a way to survive as a species without the earth!

    Not to mention the improvement in artificial intelligence. The next 100 years really will be an amazing time to be alive one way or the other!


  6. If I could go back to any time in history I would choose the year 2008 because I made some bad choices then come back to 2018. If I could go back I would choose other options for myself, but we never know what life has in store for us. Or is life really what we make it? So I will carry on.

    Before I started blogging in Oct of 2017, I lived on Facebook literally and a crazy as it may seem families use social media as a way to engage with each rather than picking up the actual phone.

    The T.V. is not what it use to be, so when I do decide to tune in its to watch Law In Order, NCIS, CSI etc; however, I love old T.V. so I will get lost in WeTv on a Sunday.

  7. I don’t know why, but if i was asked the question in concern, i would probably choose to continue in 2018. I ask myself this question whenever i watch a historical movie and sometimes i am enchanted by the past, the answers always been the present. Maybe i find it a little weird. Enjoyed the read. Great post. God bless! 🙂

  8. I love this post! I, sometimes, get teary eyed when listening to music because it reminds me of a place and time, “back then”. Yet, I actually cannot recall that “time and place”. I’m not so sure it even existed. (Lol). Strangely, it’s easy to romanticize and glamorize certain time spans that we are not presently living in. Someday, I might get teary-eyed, and sentimental about this very moment, right now; yet, I cannot presently swoon over this particular time as of yet, until it is well over with. Thank you for your deeply meaningful post <3


    1. Not need to apologise. You were discussing nostalgia, which is what the article is about. It’s a great feeling, but it is a cognitive error where we imagine the past to be better than what it was. Thanks for your comments 🙂

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