Nostalgia Is A Dirty Psychological Trick

What if were living in the good old daysnow?

Nostalgia Is A Dirty Psychological Trick

Duke Harten

What if we’re living in the good old days now?

“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them,” says Andy Bernard, the half-lovable goofball from “The Office.”

This sentiment hits home. With the flurry of surreal events 2016 unleashed, it’s easy to wonder whether we’re en route to an era that might make the current one look like the good old days. Will we look back on 2016 and be able to see it for the shit storm it was? Or will our planet’s swift descent into madness do for this year what “Ocean’s 13” did for “Ocean’s 12”?

Rose-colored glasses

Most likely, the latter. Turns out that “the good old days” might not exist at all, which is why they seem to pass us by so stealthily. Psychologists call the phenomenon “rosy retrospection” (borrowing from the idiom “to see through rose-colored glasses”). It’s a type of cognitive bias that allows us to remember experiences as much more fun than they actually were.

A study of people visiting Disneyland found that while attendees were dissatisfied in the moment (thanks to crowds, weather and bad food), they ranked their trip as a jolly good time when they were given a few weeks to let it settle.

Other studies have arrived at similar findings, which suggests a human capacity for self-deceit that explains why we’re constantly whining about how it used to be better way back when. So that’s one answer.

But what happens when you take the Disneyland example writ large, over the course of several years (or even a decade)? What happens if you examine an entire era that seems better than the present?

Throwback to the 90s

‘Saved By The Bell’

After snorting the last of the 80s cocaine, people got to work building one of the greatest Good Old Days decades since the roaring 20s. A cursory search of “Were the 90s better than now?” on Google yields a fat stack of listicles extolling the virtues of that decade. One of those pieces points out that in some ways, things really were better back then: People didn’t have phones to distract them at dinner, for instance. (Other criteria include stuff like a lack of Kardashians and the box office success of “Pulp Fiction.”)

Art and music

Nick Ross, a music writer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, argues that the explosion of new bands and unique musical voices in the 90s was the music industry’s last great boom. Bands like Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers inspired people to buy albums, but also to check out the inspirations for these fresh voices. This gave rise to a resurgence of people buying older bands like Zeppelin and The Doors. Since then, Ross asserts, the music industry has suffered a decline both in sales and originality — this isn’t rosy retrospection, it’s a measurable phenomenon.

“Is it any wonder that music sales have been in decline since the late 90s? Music since that time, at least comparatively, has not inspired the creation of heaps of new bands, or got people looking into musical history and rock family trees or buying back catalogues. Simon Cowell, arguably the global leader in mainstream music, is credited with saying that a song won’t be a hit if it doesn’t appeal to 14-year-old girls.”

The film scene has changed, too, for better and worse. Have there been amazing leaps in filmmaking technology? Sure. But the creative support given to auteurs like Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson and the Coen Brothers has all but dried up. Those established guys continue making movies (though not as well, if “Hateful Eight” or “Hail, Caesar!” were any indication), but where is the cultural backing for new voices in film? A deluge of superheroes and sequels has, with very little exception, dominated the last decade-plus.

Economic woes

It’s not just nostalgic bloggers who think the 90s were better because we were, like, more artistically in tune, dude. US News and World Report points out the grimness of economic opportunity for young people in particular:

“Since 1990, the percentage of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school has increased by 5 percent, to a national average of 14.7 percent in 2010. In some states — such as Mississippi, Nevada and Louisiana — the rate is as high as 20 percent, but in others — North Dakota, Minnesota and Vermont — it’s below 10 percent.”

Add this to the leaden weight of student loan debt and the cutthroat competition for the jobs that do exist, and you’ve cooked up an ocean of hurt for young Americans coming of age in the early aughts.

How to tell the difference

It’s difficult to quantify one epoch as objectively better or worse than another. Someone who misses “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” and Savage Garden might eventually look upon the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Bruno Mars with the same rose-tinted affection.

Perhaps the 90s did outdo our current age in some ways. Or maybe it’s just humanity’s lot to remember the Good Old Days fondly while griping about the ones we’re living in right now.