Inspired by my work as a hostess in a nursing home along with the text I read for one of my philosophy classes: Nostalgia and Its Discontents by Svetlana Boym, I decided to base my thesis on the topic of nostalgia. Longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. In my thesis I am exploring multiple answers to the question: how did nostalgia’s meaning develop from the coined moment of the terminology, and how has this concept been experienced in Europe since the 2000’s (with special focus on the period from 2010-2020) in comparison to the 17th century? By combining personal memoir/experiences and philosophical/historical analysis, I tried to find answers to this question. Nostalgia underwent some particularly significant metamorphosis’s. From a curable disease to an incurable feeling of longing.


This thesis contains several intermezzo’s. My thesis is written in English and the intermezzo’s are written in Dutch. There are in total 5 intermezzo's. By clicking on the rotating       roses, you will be able to find them. On the top half of the page you see the lyrics of a song called Brabant of Dutch singer-songwriter Guus Meeuwis. On the bottom half of the page you see the text of an episode from De Snijtafel. De Snijtafel is an internet video series in which popular culture is dissected, interpreted and criticized.


As someone who is working in a nursing home as a hostess, I am surrounded by residents (not all of them) who are there against their will and share with me their nostalgic feelings about the past. I work at a nursing home in Zaandijk called Graankoper. The nursing home has both an open department and a closed department, for residents with dementia. Graankoper is an open department where the residents are allowed to leave the department and go outside whenever they want. All of the people who become residents there will, most likely, never return to their homes.

The spaces inside the nursing home are sometimes decorated with images and furniture of the past. A huge image of the facade of Simon de Wit 1 is facing you when you walk through the main entrance. Everything is based on the past: the furniture, the music, the activities, the food, the decorations et cetera. Some of the residents in the department I work at, are in the beginning state of dealing with dementia. The residents sometimes think they live in the past and tell me stories about their lives as if it happened that very day. One of the residents, called P. Servaes once told me how he had just come back from singing class; he had a wonderful time, but it made him very tired. The day before, the same person told me with great passion about all of the countries he visited with his show choir called Whale City Sound and how he would do anything to go back to that time. It was interesting how one day he thought he was still living in the past, while the next day he said he would do anything to go back there.

Though, most of the residents are still able to think quite clearly, one day during the last week of July I had an interesting and emotional conversation with one of the residents of the department where I work. His name was J. Slagboom. He told me that he applied for euthanasia. We talked about some of the reasons why he had done so. He told me stories about his childhood in Friesland and how he spent his days there. He always loved to take long walks through the endless green fields. He worked at a farm and his days were long. He woke up early in the morning and his day did not end until late in the evening. He was a man who was always busy and was never standing still. He did not have a complicated life. He liked the regularities and the simplicity in his days. Unfortunately, old age and physical difficulties caught up with him. He is not able to take those long walks anymore and he ended up in a nursing home in Zaandijk. He longs to go back to those green fields and the times where he was still able to take long walks. At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time, a former time in one’s life. A lot has changed in the world since the residents at my work were younger. Did these rapid changes increase their longing to the more quiet and simpler times?

During the beginning of 2020, I had to read an essay for my philosophy class, called Nostalgia and its Discontents by the writer and professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures called Svetlana Boym. This text, together with my experience of working in a nursing home, made me want to know more about nostalgia. What exactly is nostalgia? Is the nostalgia that we experience in Europe today different from the nostalgia that is experienced hundreds of years ago? The answers to these questions are the foundation of this thesis.

We live in a time where technological advances and globalisation are a fact. Does technological progress and global culture cure nostalgia, or does this increase our longing for the slower rhythms of the past and encourage this stronger attachment to local tradition? I collected all of the above-mentioned questions, and formulated them into the following research question:

How did nostalgia’s meaning develop from the coined moment of the terminology, and how has this concept been experienced in Europe since the 2000’s (with special focus on the period from 2010-2020) in comparison to the 17th century?

In order to answer this question, I have divided my thesis into chapters. The first chapter is an introduction to the history of nostalgia. From the 17th century, when nostalgia was seen as a curable disease, to the mid-nineteenth century, when nostalgia became institutionalized in national and provincial museums, historical centres, heritage foundations, and memorials. The past was until that moment no longer unknown or unknowable. The past became “heritage”. Further I will also shine a light on the start of Romanticism and how nostalgia emerged during that time. In the second chapter I will dive more into the technology that once promised to bridge modern displacement and distance and provide a miracle cure for nostalgic soreness. On the contrary, technology became much faster than nostalgic longing. If we claim that progress did not cure nostalgia; did it increase it instead? In the final chapter I will look at nostalgia as seen from two different points of view: the positive view on nostalgia; how it directly stimulates creativity. And a more negative view on nostalgia: how it represents a personal insufficiency and an unaffordable luxury as such.



Nostalgia originates from the Greek nostos (νόστος) and algia (ἄλγος). Nostos means to return home and algia means pain and longing. Almost everyone has experienced nostalgic feelings, though it can be hard to define. One of the difficulties in giving nostalgia a good definition is that the word has changed its meaning throughout history (Salmose, 2012). I will explain more about this later on in this chapter. In Boym’s essay, she defined nostalgia as follows: “Longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one,” (Boym, 2001, P. XIII). A return home can sometimes turn out as a disappointment. In our head we tend to idealize our past, forgetting about all the negative parts. Even if everything still looks the same, the time is different. This can also be called rosy retrospection, which means remembering the past more positively than it actually was ("Rosy Retrospection", 2020).

Important for further reading through this thesis, is to differentiate between nostalgia, memory and melancholy clearly. The emotional appeal of happy memories does not depend on displeasure of the present, which is characteristic of the nostalgic attitude. Nostalgia appeals to the feeling that the past offered joy and happiness which is no longer obtainable. Nostalgic representations of the past evoke a time irreversible and for that reason timeless and unchanging. Nostalgia does not require the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealized stands outside of time, frozen in imaginative perfection (LASCH, 1990, P.1). A quote from Walter Benjamin that explains this very well is the following: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was,” (Benjamin et al., 2015, P.247). Memory too can idealize the past, but not only in order to criticize or censure the present. It draws hope and comfort from the past in order to brighten up the present and to face what comes with good spirit. It sees past, present and future as continuous and it is less concerned with loss (LASCH, 1990, P.1). Melancholia on the other hand is a sadness that lasts for a long period of time, often without any obvious reason. Melancholia is a subtype of depression. Those who suffer from melancholic depression often feel extremely abandoned and guilty. They may struggle to feel any happiness, even when good things happen in their lives ("Melancholy", 2020).

What is also important to know is the difference between Nostalgia and Homesickness. Homesickness the sadness caused by being away from home. It is a state of being with preoccupying thoughts about home (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Nostalgia too can be about missing home but here you miss the home of the past which is no longer obtainable.


The term nostalgia was written down and defined for the first time by a 17th-century medical student called Johannes Hofner, to describe the mental symptoms that were shown by Swiss soldiers fighting abroad (de Diego & Valiente, 2014, P.404). Certain smells or sounds reminded the soldiers of their home country, perhaps, since they were not in the most pleasant of situations, they wondered why they were spending their lives abroad, away from their families. When Hofer created the term nostalgia he tended to define a feeling that was, in that time, known as homesickness, or in German-Swiss: heimweh. The original title page to Hofer’s medical dissertation you can see on image 1. When Hofer defined the term, nostalgia was seen as a curable disease. Swiss doctors thought a trip to the Alps, a return home or improved medicines would do the job to cure nostalgia. Though in some cases this worked, it is hard to know exactly, since some symptoms of nostalgia were confused with hypochondria or tuberculosis. Eventually, tuberculosis became treatable, but nostalgia did not (Boym, 2001, P.11). When other soldiers noticed that their companions were sent back home after expressing nostalgic symptoms, an outbreak of fake nostalgia among soldiers who pretended to miss their friends and family to get out of fighting arose (Beck, 2013). Soldiers took advantage of what was seen as a disease and pretended to have nostalgic feelings to be able to return to their homes. At some point this ceased to work. Because nostalgia got a negative connotation, soldiers who expressed any feeling of nostalgia, were threatened to be buried alive. Fortunately, this did not occur as often as it was threatened but there are three reported cases of soldiers being buried alive (Boym, 2001, P.3-4). Not only soldiers showed nostalgic symptoms, others who experienced nostalgic feelings were children who were sent to the countryside to be nurses, and young men and women between the ages of 20 and 30 years old who left their homes to be domestic servants (Beck, 2013).

Image 1: The original title page to Hofer’s medical dissertation

Nostalgia’s meaning has changed a lot over time. For example, during the period of Romanticism 2 (1830-1860), there was a strong focus on nostalgia, longing, melancholy and individual expression. At the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th, Romanticism quickly spread throughout Europe and the United States to challenge the rational ideal, inspired by, among others, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy on Enlightenment ("Romanticism Movement Overview", 2020). Intense emotions and the individual are the centre in this movement. The romantic motto is: “I long, therefore I am” (Boym, 2007, P.13). The movement originated as a reaction against the cold detachment and sober style of (Neo)classicism, which was preferred European academies ("Romanticism Movement Overview", 2020). The romantics looked for “memorative signs”. Artists painted new subjects with an emotional load, such as the illustrious past. They favoured dramatic moments, such as a threatening thunderstorm and landscapes with a picturesque or religious atmosphere as you can see by looking at this painting by Théodore Gericault called Evening Landscape with an Aqueduct [Image 2] (Gericault, 1818). Additionally, in an effort to stem the tide of increasing industrialization, many of the Romanticists emphasized the individual's connection to nature and an idealized past ("Romanticism Movement Overview", 2020). Romanticism was closely bound up with the emergence of newly found nationalism that swept many countries after the American Revolution. Emphasizing local folklore, traditions, and landscapes, Romanticists provided the visual imagery that further spurred national identity and pride ("Romanticism Movement Overview", 2020).

Image 2: Evening Landscape with an Aqueduct by Théodore Gericault

Yet this view on nostalgia was not the only one in the 19th century. Many poets and philosophers explored nostalgic longing for its own sake rather than using it as a vehicle to a promised land. Kant saw in the combination of melancholy, nostalgia and self-awareness a unique aesthetic sense that did not objectify the past but rather heightened one’s sensitivity to the dilemmas of life and moral freedom. For Kant, philosophy was seen as a nostalgia for a better world. Nostalgia is what humans share, not what should divide them (Boym, 2001, P.13). In the mid-nineteenth century, nostalgia became institutionalized in national and provincial museums, historical centres, heritage foundations, and memorials. The past was until that moment no longer unknown/unknowable or mysterious. The past became “heritage” (Boym, 2007, P.230).

Back then, during the time of romanticism, nostalgia emerged from strong national feelings. Today nostalgia is still used in politics. Tradition is sometimes used an as excuse to approve or to sustain something. As an example, we can look at the Zwarte Pieten3 discussion. Every year around November/December it is be brought back up again. Proponents of Zwarte Piet argue that it is a tradition and you can’t take that away from them, as if that legitimizes everything. As Boym would say in a very accurate way: “The mix of nostalgia and politics can be explosive,” (Boym, 2007, P.10). In the next chapter I will focus more on this time period.

During the end of the 19th century, in 1888 to be precisely, the term nostalgia underwent a particularly significant metamorphosis. In this year Kodak released the first commercially successful camera for amateurs. To illustrate this, Nancy Martha West, the author of Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, writes that the camera “allowed people to arrange their lives in such a way that painful or unpleasant aspects were systematically erased,” (Rowen, 2017). Ads, of which you can see an example on image 3 (Kodak, 1903), were presenting it as a necessary instrument for preserving memories of children and family celebrations (Rowen, 2017).

Image 3: Kodak advertisement from 1903

All in all, nostalgia can be hard to define, mainly because of the different phases it went through: from the 17th century when the term nostalgia was written down and defined for the first time by a 17th-century medical student called Johannes Hofner to describe the mental symptoms that were shown by Swiss soldiers who were away from home, to the nineteenth-century romantics who fostered the melancholic aspects of the “disease” and created a more public, atmospheric, mood-like, and constructed aesthetic nostalgia, inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy on Enlightenment.


Today nostalgia is not seen as an equal to only homesickness anymore, nor a curable disease. “Through romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism, history has added and deducted meanings of the word and thus actually fine-tuned it into a more specific and precise meaning. At the same time it has opened up the interpretations of nostalgia to cover a wider area of experience than was conceived at the beginning,” (Salmose, 2012). After nostalgia was given a more specific definition and precise meaning, Boym specified it even more by separating two different kinds of nostalgia: The Restorative and the Reflective. Restorative nostalgia looks back longingly, sometimes even jealously, on the past, and desires to re-construct or relive the ‘rituals of homeland’ in the present. Restorative nostalgia can cause people to get stuck in the past and long for it in such a way that it can potentially defeat and harm them. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, embraces the fragmented access to the past with the knowledge that the pas is the past, and can never be relived again,” (Boym, 2001, P. 41, 49). An example of someone who is dealing with restorative nostalgia is earlier mentioned J. Slagboom: he desires to re-construct or relive the ‘rituals of homeland’ in the present. But how does this longing start and what influences it? Like explained in the first chapter, nostalgia was defined for the first time to describe the mental symptoms of Swiss soldiers after hearing certain sounds. Still today sound can raise nostalgic feelings, but in the 21st century there are many big nostalgia influencers that were not around in the 17th century. For example, the camera, the internet and many other technical inventions. Technology is also understood to be the driving force of globalization that began in the 18th century and has continued ever since (Shangquan, 2000, P.3). Both improved technology and globalization have had a big influence on how and how much people feel nostalgic.


We live in an era of big changes and transformations. We live in a very mobile world and this mobility is “profoundly transforming our apprehension of the world: it is provoking a new experience or orientation and disorientation, new senses of placed and placeless identity,” (Morley & Robins, 1995). The intense interconnectedness of 21st century globalization has provoked continuous re-definitions of the political, cultural, economic and social frontiers. These constant changes can cause an increased feeling of instability and uncertainty which can lead to vulnerability and fear. This anxiety provokes a nostalgic search for the symbolically represented ‘home’. But, the question that remains, whether this ‘home’ is real or just a reflection of memories of imagined past securities (Oliete-Aldea, 2012, p.347). Boym states that “Globalization encourages stronger local attachments. In counterpoint to our fascination with cyberspace and the virtual global village, there is a global epidemic of nostalgia, an effective yearning for a community with a collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world,” (Boym, 2001, P.10) Personally I don’t believe that this counts for everybody. Some individuals are not as emotionally attached to specific local places as others and not everyone prefers continuity above discontinuity.

I do think that globalisation can influence the longing for the past. Because of increased mobilisation and globalisation some places have lost their uniqueness. Places all around the world start to look more and more alike. I remember stories from my grandparents that Zaandijk, the village I grew up in, used to have lots of small local shops owned by local residents. Nowadays most of these small local shops are replaced by big chains like Ikea, Starbucks and Baumarkt. My grandparents, together with the residents at Evean have been affected by this switch more severely than my generation was. I think the importance of the places has stayed the same, only the places themselves changed and started to look more alike.

The presence of nostalgia is probably fuelled by the media presenting the instability that arises as globalization, economically, politically, socially and culturally, becomes more intense. Stephen Castles, who is a research Professor at the Institute for Social Change at the University of Sydney, looks at the processes of globalization from two sides and I could not agree with this more: “On the one hand, the new changes offer new horizons and possibilities of emancipation, on the other hand, they can also lead to social and psychological insecurity, and threaten feelings of identity and community,” (Oliete-Aldea, 2012, p.349).

Kevin Robins and I share the same idea on how the interest in the past has to do with the nature of globalisation itself. On the one hand, the amount and ease of traveling can “blur” borders and cultural links, which can cause a feeling of anxiety. On the other hand, borders are now clearer than ever: for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the emerging of multiple smaller states, and thus increased the number of different borders drastically. In both cases the past becomes the only imaginary stable and cohesive point of reference for people to hold on to a secure cultural identity (Oliete-Aldea, 2012, P.350).

It is important to know, when we talk about identity, the difference between personal and collective nostalgia. Collective nostalgia refers to the nostalgia originated from emotional attachment to collective cultural identities without earlier personal participation experience. Collective nostalgia is related to but different from personal nostalgia (Kao, 2012, P.514-518). Collective nostalgia originates from within a collective, such as stories passed down within a family, taking part in social practices, sharing group experiences, or learning from books or mass media about one’s cultural heritage. This emotional bonding is formed through exposure to culturally created events for a prolonged period of time (Tuminas, 2019). Personal nostalgia on the other hand is focussed on personalised cultural identities associated with the past and subjectively defined by individuals (Kao, 2012, P.514).


Like mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, globalisation and improved technology go hand in hand. Technology was once seen as something to bridge modern displacement and distance and provide a miracle cure for nostalgic sadness. On the contrary, technology and nostalgia have become co-dependent. If progress did not cure nostalgia; did it increase it?

Until not that long ago, nostalgia’s triggers were mostly spontaneous: walking past an advertisement reminding you of the past, flipping the pages of your old photo albums while you were back at your parents’ house for the weekend. Today, thanks to our devices such as our laptops and smartphones together with social media, we can experience nostalgia on demand. The Timehop app, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram all have an ‘On This Day’ feature, which shows you pictures, events, other posts and social media updates from a given day in history (Rowen, 2017). The majority of social media users are posting a myriad of images depicting the most amazing moments of their lives, in order to create an archive of great memories for them to look back on. This can create a distorted image of our past, since people tend to erase the unpleasant captured moments. The further forward in time people go, the more distant they tend to get from our true memories of the past (Rowen, 2017). Someone who is dealing with the idea of the online world as a memory influencer is named Chris Kore. In her graduation project at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, called AImnesia, she focuses on the concept of human hybrid memory, which can be augmented, influenced, and modified by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

“Through the experience of absurd video installation about a hybrid memory creation made by using a pre-trained BigGAN model, the Ganbreeder app, and a reverse Google image search, I intend to prompt a discussion of evolving algorithms that can be trained on our online photos and can fill in memory gaps by creating fake memories that are plausible enough to be perceived as real,” (Kore, 2019).

It is interesting how Kore shows her audience that it is not only social media users tricking themselves into believing the past was a more rose-coloured time, but it is also the power of AI ticking them into believing this. Technological development is leading us to convert our minds into bits and to extend the memories, thoughts, and perceptions beyond our biological bodies to algorithmically mediated objects, databases, and networks. Our brains adapt to the tools that we use. Image 4 shows the video installation (Kore, 2019).

Image 4: Video installation by Chris Kore called

While these features together with the power of AI can show us happenings from the past and can influence our memory, other technologies could place these happenings inside of us. Like Virtual Reality (VR) for example. A work I recently stumbled upon is Jawa El Khash's VR space called The Upper Side of the Sky. Image 5 gives an impression of what the space looks like (El Khash, 2019). Reflecting on her first interaction with 3D software, Jawa says: “I started to think of it as a tool that combines softness from the renaissance and romanticism era while resembling the harshness of modernism and brutalist architecture,” (Pittaway, 2019). In her latest work she presents a VR landscape populated by Syria’s lost ecological and architectural forms. These artefacts – which have been destroyed, damaged or endangered as a result of the Syrian Civil War – find themselves resurrected in a virtual ecosystem comprising of a greenhouse, courtyard, chrysalis chamber, butterflies and ancient monuments native to Palmyra. Each monument, pattern printed on the tiles and each fruit, plant or herb that exists in the space as a result of research and theoretical reflection (Pittaway, 2019).

Image 5: impression of Jawa El Khash's VR space called The Upper Side of the Sky

I find this a very beautiful and meaningful project. During my internship I met a Syrian refugee called Mohammad. Together with his wife and two children they flee the country, to start a better life in the Netherlands where they are now living for five years. He told me about the rest of their family members who are still in Damascus, the city where they grew up. I can imagine that for them, a project like this is very important. On the one hand a project like this makes it possible for older generations to still remember Syria in a way how it was before the Syrian civil war and on the other hand it allows younger generations to learn about their countries history. This way Syrian heritage won’t get completely lost, and finds new ways to survive through this work. What Jawa finds important about this project is “The idea of building virtual worlds using open source libraries is important to me as it’s a gesture of resilience against the destruction of these historical objects. It also supports sharing knowledge with future generations so they can learn about their history and access this data,” (Pittaway, 2019). Here VR is able to place you back into a space of the past that does not exist anymore. In the same family of VR is MR, short for Mixed Reality. This is a technique I recently came across. Mixed reality is an extension of Augmented Reality that allows real and virtual elements to interact in an environment. I can already imagine that for an artist like Jawa this technique can be super interesting as well.
Another example is a fictional VR experience that takes place in the future. In this particular case, VR is used to help and support residents of nursing homes, or for those who are terminally ill. This concept was introduced by me through a black mirror episode that I saw a few years ago called San Junipero. Brooker, who wrote this episode, became inspired by nostalgia as a therapy for the elderly. San Junipero is the name of a simulated reality where the deceased can live and the elderly can visit. All of them are inhabiting the bodies of their younger selves in a time of their own choice.

When I was thinking of the downsides of this kind of therapy, I was worried that the elderly using this "nostalgia therapy", could lose themselves in this world instead of spending their last days in real life. When this thought came to me, I remembered that there was also a time limit to this experience. The elderly are allowed to visit the world for a maximum of five hours every week. In this case I can really imagine that this therapy would help the elderly, but at the same time I can imagine that this could become addictive and they could be tempted to live only for the next time they could go into this simulated reality. We are now living in an era where it goes even further than VR, AR, MR, etc. Recently I saw an episode of Zondag met Lubach where the dangers of deepfake were explained, but also the positive uses of it. For example for bereavement. Old images of the deceased are digitally brought to life by a voice actor, with whom the next of kin can then talk to. This is something I definitely have to get used to and this technology seems a bit scary to me since it can also can be used for less positive ends (Lubach, 2020).

Altogether, I think it is safe to say that improved mobility and technology have had a big influence on how and how often we experience nostalgic feelings. Though it is very hard to pin point because this is different for everybody. Technology makes it possible for us to experience nostalgia on demand and globalisation can stimulate longing for the simpler and more stable times.


“I spent all my summers making plans for September. Not any longer. Now I spend the summer remembering the good intentions which vanished. In part because of laziness, in part because of carelessness. What's wrong with feeling nostalgic? It's the only distraction for those who've no faith in the future. Without rain August is coming to an end, and September isn't arriving. And I'm so ordinary. But there's no need to worry. It's alright, it's okay,” (Sorrentino, 2013, 1:30:10).

Nostalgia is a sentiment that keeps returning in the movie La Grande Belezza, directed by Sorrentino. Sorrentino’s approach is to incorporate a reflection on nostalgia and memory, investigating how we make the passing of time meaningful to us. Though, throughout the film, nostalgia is portrayed as a distraction, as something that takes you away from the present and sends you to a past that seems real while making you miss the future that is right in front of you (Sorrentino, 2013). In the previous chapters I looked at the definition of nostalgia and how the term evolved between the 17th century until now. Not only nostalgia’s definition, but also its connotation changed over time. In this chapter I will look at nostalgia as seen from two different points of view: the positive view on nostalgia; how it directly stimulates creativity. And a more negative view on nostalgia: how it represents a personal insufficiency and an unaffordable luxury as such.


Starting with some positive views on nostalgia, Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, defined nostalgia as the virtual reality of consciousness. This modern concept does not rely on technology; on the contrary, it is about human freedom and creativity. According to Bergson, “The human creativity that resists mechanical repetition and predictability, allows us to explore the virtual realities of consciousness,” (Boym, 2001, P.50). Next to Bergson, there was Marcel Proust, another person who in my opinion beautifully described how nostalgia can be a creative state. Marcel Proust, who was a French novelist, critic, and essayist, stated that “Remembrance is an unpredictable adventure in syncretic perception where words and tactile sensations overlap. Place names open up mental maps and space folds into time,” (Boym, 2001, P.50). An interesting experiment that tries to back up these claims about nostalgia and creativity was conducted by a team of psychologists from the University of Southampton who wanted to see whether or not nostalgia benefits creativity. In a set of experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wijnand van Tilburg and his team tested nostalgia’s influence on creative writing. For two of the experiments, the researchers asked 175 participants to reminisce about nostalgic memory, which they defined as a memory that triggers “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past,” (Tilburg, 2015). They told the control group to think of an ordinary memory as well:

“Please think of a nostalgic event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that makes you feel most nostalgic. Bring this nostalgic experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the nostalgic experience. How does it make you feel?” (Tilburg, 2015)

“Please bring to mind an ordinary event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that is ordinary. Bring this ordinary experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the ordinary experience. How does it make you feel?” (Tilburg, 2015)

Next, the participant filled in a 3-item nostalgia manipulation check. The items were: “Right now, I am feeling quite nostalgic,” “Right now, I'm having nostalgic feelings,” “I feel nostalgic at the moment,” (Tilburg, 2015). Then they asked the participants to write stories that either included a princess, a cat, and a race car, or started with the sentence “One cold winter evening, a man and a woman were alarmed by a sound coming from a nearby house,” (Tilburg, 2015). When these stories were evaluated, people who reminisced nostalgically scored higher on linguistic creativity than those who recalled ordinary memories. To be surer that nostalgia directly stimulates creativity, and is not just connected to people having a good feeling while recalling the past, van Tilburg and his team organized another creative writing test. 106 individuals recalled either a nostalgic memory or a serendipity and then wrote about it. Again, the result showed that the nostalgic participants wrote more creatively compared to people who recalled a positive memory or serendipity (Tilburg, 2015).

I am aware that these experiments do not completely prove that they who experienced nostalgic feeling are for certain more creative and it is also not completely clear why nostalgia would nurture creativity, but van Tilburg has a theory: “One of the strongest personality traits that predicts creativity is openness,” van Tilburg says. “People who are very open to novelty are more likely to, say, play around with new ideas or create connections between things where others would not,” (Tilburg, 2015). Nostalgic memories might give people some sort of sense of belonging, meaning, and security that is likely to open them up to future experiences and, like Tilburg states, that openness encourages creativity (Tilburg, 2015).


Now the less positive views on nostalgia are being explored, seen from a different perspective. To start with a term similar to nostalgia: the Arabic words ḥuzn and ḥazan from the Qur'an and hüzün in Modern Turkish. The Turkish word is a loan word, originating from Arabic. Hüzün is the Turkish word for melancholy, but it has a more complicated weight than the English term. In Modern Turkish the word refers to the pain and sorrow over a loss, death of relatives ("Ḥuzn", 2019). Sufism takes it to represent a feeling of personal insufficiency, that one was not getting close enough to God and did not or could not do enough for God in this world (Specia, 2017). It has come to denote a sense of failure in life, lack of initiative and to retreat into oneself, symptoms quite similar to nostalgia and melancholia. Hüzün is also beautifully described by Orhan Pamuk in his novel Istanbul: Memories and the City. Pamuk says that hüzün is a “mood conveying worldly failure, listlessness, and spiritual suffering. […] The hüzün of Istanbul is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating,” (Pamuk, 2006, P.150). The same though accompanies nostalgia in the 17th century, ancient Arabic physicians and psychologists categorized hüzün as a disease. Some link hüzün to mental states like anger, passion, hatred and depression, while others diagnosed hüzün in a lovesick person if his/her pulse increased drastically when the name of the person he/she loved was spoken ("Ḥuzn", 2019).

Just like hüzün, the definition of nostalgia can also have a negative connotation and is often used dismissively. “Nostalgia is something of a bad word, an affectionate insult at best,”(Boym, 2001, p.XIV). Boym explains in her book that in the past that when she emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United Stated in 1981, she was told at the border that she could never return. So she explains that nostalgia for her seemed like a waste of time and an unaffordable luxury. “At that time, being a “resident alien” seemed the only appropriate form of identity, which I slowly began to accept,” (Boym, 2001, p.XV). Michael Kammen, who was an American professor of American cultural history in the Department of History at Cornell University, writes: “Nostalgia is essentially history without guilt. Heritage is something that suffuses us with pride rather than with shame,”(Kammen, 1991, p.688). Or like Boym calls this, “a guilt free homecoming,” (Boym, 2001, p.XIV).

I do agree with both Kammen and Boym. I had held a prejudice against nostalgia as well. I used to see it like the quote by the movie character called Romano in the movie La Grande Belezza, “What's wrong with feeling nostalgic? It's the only distraction for those who've no faith in the future.” (Sorrentino, 2013). Why look forward in times that you feel bad? Look back to the past to at least feel good about those times. My idea about nostalgia changed a lot after reading Boym her essay. I still see feeling nostalgic as something that overcomes you in negative times, but I also understand that it can give you hope. After reading about Tilburg his experiments, I also believe that it can stimulate creativity. A question that we can also ask ourselves to explain is why nostalgia can be seen as something negative: is there a causality between capitalism and the negative association of nostalgia since it can be seen as a distraction on being productive? Answers might be found in the example of Sufism where hüzün is seen as a personal insufficiency. Nostalgia can be a personal insufficiency as well but in a slightly way than hüzün in Sufism (Specia, 2017).

In brief, nostalgia can be seen from different points of view. Boym used to see nostalgia as “an unaffordable luxury” and “a guilt free homecoming”. Kammen phrases it slightly different as “history without guilt”. On the other hand, nostalgia can also be seen, like Tilburg tries to prove with his experiments, as stimulator of creativity. Nostalgia can, as he suggests, function as comfort in darker times.


What started off as an interest in nostalgia because on my experience as hostess in a nursing home, resulted in an extensive research about this topic. The experiences I gained through my work helped me understand the concept of nostalgia as described in the articles and literature I used for this research better. It also provided me a good starting point for writing this thesis. I explored different answers to my research question by combining personal memoir/experiences and philosophical/historical analysis to explore spaces of collective and personal nostalgia from the 17th century till the 21st century.

All in all, nostalgia can be hard to define, mainly because of the different phases it went through: a sentiment of loss and displacement, but also a romance with one’s own fantasy. When people are feeling nostalgic about the past, mostly it is because the present is not ideal. This causes people to long for better and easier times of the past. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. Based on the sources I used I think it is safe to say that improved mobility and technology have a big influence on how and how often we experience nostalgic feelings, both now and in the past. Technology makes it possible to experience nostalgia on demand. Besides that, globalisation can stimulate longing for the seemingly simpler and more stable times. Nostalgia can be seen from different points of view. On the one hand, some people see nostalgia -partly because of its history- as a negative insufficient state, an unaffordable luxury and/or a “guilt free homecoming”. On the other hand, some people believe, as Tilburg tries to prove with his experiment, nostalgia stimulates creativity. In this case nostalgia can function as comfort in darker times. 

It was sometimes hard to find reliable sources about this topic, mainly because not that much research has been done so far. That is why I invite you, as a reader, to do more research about this ever-evolving topic.


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  1. Simon de Wit was a supermarket chain in the Netherlands from 1951 till 1972, when it became part of another Dutch supermarket chain called Albert Heijn. Both Albert Heijn and Simon de Wit originally come from Zaanstad ("Geschiedenis in detail | Albert Heijn", 2020).

  2. Romanticism is the name of a 19th-century vision of life that is expressed in literature, music and the visual arts ("Romanticism", 2020).

  3. To celebrate the 5th of December, which is the Dutch St. Nicholas holiday, Dutch people gather for parades in which the saint calledSinterklaas arrives in town to hand out candy and gifts. But these parades have taken on an increasingly political tone because of Sinterklaas his traditional blackface sidekick. In Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas has a “helper” named Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, who appears as a blackface character with large gold earrings and exaggerated big red lips. The number of Dutch people who are protesting the tradition of Sinterklaas his “helper” is growing (Little, 2020).