Ah, the good old days

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
"Wish we could turn back time

To the good old days

When our momma sang us to sleep but

Now we're stressed out"

Chorus from Stressed Out, by Twenty One Pilots

I recall hearing that particular song and thinking "Yes, yes, I agree. Life used to be so much easier. Ah, the good old days!" I spent some considerable time having a nostalgic wander through my memories, glorifying past times and basking in the warm glow of happy days gone by. Then I snapped out of it! "Hang on," I implored myself. "Were the good old days really that good? Is life so much worse now than it used to be? Surely not." Logically that doesn't make sense, after all, if life is actually getting worse then we're all in terrible trouble.

Why is it "the good old days" seem so much better than the here and now. What's really going on to make us think and feel that? Well, it seems there are several things at play where nostalgia is concerned.

For those of us over 40, looking back on our childhood events, it's reasonable to think that times were less stressful. There wasn't as much pressure (if any) from social media and most of our days were spent concerned with school work, friends and what we were doing at the weekend. We weren't the ones doing the worrying about paying the bills, getting the meals on the table, working out who needed to be where, when or any of those other adult things we now have to deal with. I suspect that automatically makes our childhoods and past times immediately more appealing. The day to day adult things we now have to negotiate can leave us feeling a bit, well, over it.

Everything we do creates an accompanying emotion and remembering an event stimulates emotions, just not necessarily the same ones as we originally experienced. Over time, the intensity of uncomfortable emotions (e.g. fear, embarrassment, sadness etc), fades more quickly than the intensity of positive emotions. So, even if the school camp, rock concert, party or whatever wasn't our happiest moment or the most enjoyable of events at the time, that uncomfortable feeling will actually fade and the recalled event will take on a more positive glow. It's known as the fading affect bias.

So what use is the fading affect bias to us? Recalling uncomfortable feelings is linked to survival skills. It help us avoid making the same mistakes over and over. But there's a delicate balance here. If the recalled memories and uncomfortable emotions are too strong we can be crippled by anxiety, paralysed by indecision and just plain feel emotionally burdened. We would never go on a second date if the first hadn't been as successful as we had hoped. We would constantly give up on any project if we "failed" first time around and we probably would not have progressed much from the club-wielding caveman days! So we need enough of the uncomfortable stuff to remind us to try something different, but not too much to hold us hostage. However, the more we age the more the uncomfortable events/emotions fade, so the more positive those past events seem.

Within nostalgia we find the fading affect bias coupled with a phenomenon known as "loss aversion". In present day life, we are wired to focus on perceived losses rather than actual gains. As our lives change, invariably some things will be better and some things may not. Humans automatically focus on the things we perceive to be worse e.g., increasing traffic, rising costs of living, 24-hour connectivity, rather than acknowledging what's actually improved - our cars are safer, more comfortable and fuel efficient. We have a great variety and availability of all sorts of products and many are proportionally cheaper than they used to be. Technology improvements allow us to stream our favourite movies whenever we want and regularly talk with friends and family on the other side of the world.

However, loss aversion steers us towards focusing on those perceived losses and we end up thinking that overall, life is worse than it used to be.

It's not difficult to see how the combination of adult responsibility, a fading of any difficult emotions from past events and our tendency to focus on perceived losses in our present can lead us to believe that the past was indeed a better place.

There is nothing wrong with being nostalgic. It's fun to sit around and chew the fat with those close to you recalling times you've spent together, retelling stories from the past, passing on family and cultural history. That "stuff" is important. It helps us to grow connections, it stimulates our imaginations and brains, it can make us laugh or cry, it helps keep things alive. However, it's helpful to remember that how we see the past isn't necessarily how it really was. Each of us may recall it slightly differently, and that's OK, too. There's no one absolute truth.

Enjoy the past, recall the past, have some fun with it, but also try to remember to be grateful for what's in your life at the moment. One day we may well look back at today and say "Ah, the good old days, remember ..."

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.



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