Why We Can’t Stop Longing for the Good Old Days

If you visit Hagley Park in the West Midlands of England and make it to the big 18th-century house of the Lyttelton family, walk another half-mile to the east and you’ll come upon an exotic and impressive sight once you clear the trees. In front of you is what seems like the ruins of a Gothic castle. There are four corner towers, but only one is still standing, complete with battlements and an intersecting stair turret. The others are reduced to one or two stories and the wall connecting them has collapsed. You start thinking about the ancient history of which this place could speak, and wonder what spectacular building once stood here.

The answer is none. The ruin was constructed just like this in the mid-18th century, to give the impression that a magnificent medieval castle had fallen apart over many generations. Building ruins from scratch was the height of fashion for European aristocrats at the time, using shattered castles and crumbling abbeys to create an imaginary, romantic past. Hagley Park is a selective, artificial version of history—just like the politics of nostalgia that is so popular today.

People in many countries are longing for the good old days. When asked if life in their country is better or worse today than 50 years ago, 31% of Britons, 41% of Americans and 46% of the French say it’s worse.

Psychologists say that this kind of nostalgia is natural and sometimes even useful: Anchoring our identity in the past helps give us a sense of stability and predictability. For individuals, nostalgia is especially common when we experience rapid transitions like puberty, retirement or moving to a new country. Similarly, collective nostalgia—a longing for the good old days when life was simpler and people behaved better—can also be a source of communal strength in difficult times.

But when exactly were the good old days? Podcaster Jason Feifer once devoted an episode of “Pessimists’ Archive” to this question. If you want to make America great again, he thought, you have to ask yourself when America was great. The most popular answer seemed to be the 1950s, so Mr. Feifer asked historians whether Americans in that decade thought it was particularly pleasant. Definitely not, they said. In the 1950s, American sociologists worried that rampant individualism was tearing the family apart. There were serious racial and class tensions, and everyone lived under the very real threat of instant nuclear annihilation.

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