Sometimes it doesn’t take much: the smell of the early morning air, an almost forgotten song, or a photograph, and suddenly we feel like we’ve been taken back. If the spontaneous walk through one’s own past triggers strong emotions, almost a longing, then we’re speaking of nostalgia. With all their might, our synapses transport us into a moment we’ve already experienced and felt. Often this gives us support, well-being, or simply new momentum for the day, because normally these spontaneous memory boosts are marked by strong positive feelings.

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Nostalgia: not only a brand strategy, but also strong support

The 21st century is, despite all the progress forced by digitalization, an epoch of “the throwback.” Sentimental reliance on these emotions we’ve already experienced determines our consumer behavior. The runways in Milan, Paris, and New York revived the 70s and 80s again and again. Even the 90s are already in vogue. 

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Photography, which is technically shaped by rapid progress, is a prime example of our love of nostalgia. We seem to take crisp pictures with high-tech cameras whose retro casings were designed to give them an old-fashioned look. We sit in our living room on design classics from the 80s, ride retro bicycles, and even pick up on hairstyles from past decades. Nostalgia is the present, which we experience every day not only in our minds, but also in our everyday surroundings.

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The physical and psychological woes of nostalgia

If we look at the current understanding of nostalgia, then we inevitably have to look into previous decades and centuries. The longing for the past was not always documented as being positive. The “inventor” of nostalgia, the Swiss physician Johannes Hoffer, coined the term to describe the psychological and physical suffering of soldiers who served in foreign countries. According to his theory, nostalgia was initially a nervous disease that could lead to obsessive thoughts of home, insomnia, appetite loss, crying fits, heart palpitations, and even death.

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In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud altered these views a little. Nostalgia was no longer seen as a neurological disorder, but rather a psychiatric one. It was described as a form of melancholy or depression. True to the motto, if one sticks to the past, he generates fears for the future at the same time.

Emotion celebrates its comeback

So how can it be that the description of an emotional state is making such a comeback? And from a disease of demonic size to a mass-marketing phenomenon? The answer, of course, lies in research. While the approaches of past eras have been considered rather unscientifically, over the past decade, science has systematically investigated the state of nostalgia. 

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The meaningful feeling that is evoked by memories has since been typically associated with positive experiences, such as a relationship with an important person, the discoveries of youth, or pleasurable yet dramatic experiences. Meanwhile, research has come to the very unanimous conclusion that nostalgia is a social emotional experience that focuses on close relationships and is thus fundamentally characterized by positive feelings. Man is not a lone wolf. We want to share our experiences with loved ones. These are usally the exact the moments in which nostalgia takes us back.

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Nostalgia in photography

The question as to why nostalgia is so strongly anchored in photography in particular can certainly be explained in a complex way, but fortunately it can also be explained quite simply. A photo is always a reflection of the past. The instant we relese the shutter, that moment lives for milliseconds on the processor or film. Nevertheless, it’s already become a thing of the past. There is no image of the present. Even a representation of the future remains a presumed view from the past. Pictures want to put us in a past, nostalgic state. They are emotional. It’s in their DNA.

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