Guest Columnist

The good old days: How the past informs the future

The former Gazette building at 500 3rd Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids. Circa 1968. (File photo)
The former Gazette building at 500 3rd Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids. Circa 1968. (File photo)

Winter is a season to take stock, and we can all agree that the last year was sheer hell. So how do we cope with 2021? We hope for better days in the future and recall the distant past with nostalgia.

Oh those “good old days!” In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Norberg provided startling evidence of our longing for what has gone before. “When asked if life in their country is better or worse today than 50 years ago,” he writes, “31 % of Britons, 41% of Americans, and 46% of French say it’s worse.”

Do these figures seem high to you? Not to worry — psychologists will tell you that nostalgia is a natural, comforting element of mental health. The past is stable and predictable; it provides us with a frame and a focus during “unprecedented times” such as those we experienced in 2020.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our yearning to return to the past is the fact that each generation clings to a different decade.

In fact, each generation remembers the days of its youth as the best years of its life. Our memories tell us that these were good times, bright with hope.

So, it will come as no surprise that the 1950s are most often cited as the happiest of times. These were the years when baby boomers were young. Millions of aging Americans get nostalgic about the Mickey Mouse Club, summer camp, Kool-Aid, and riding bikes.

Few of these boomers have any memories of the Cold War, racial injustice, or McCarthyism.

But the parents of these boomers didn’t cling to the 1950s; in fact, among these adults there was widespread apprehension about nuclear war.

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Not a few homes in the suburbs had shelters stocked with essential supplies in case the country came under attack. The parents of the 1950s remembered the 1920s as the good old days — an era of full employment, going to the movies, and Sunday rides in the family automobile.

Why is clinging to the past so common? “One possibility,” notes Norberg, “is that we know we have survived past dangers — otherwise we wouldn’t be here — so in retrospect [problems] seem smaller.” We overcame adversity back then so we have confidence that we can do it again.

Our nostalgia is also tied to our we learn in our youth. Research has shown that we store more memories during our youth than at any other time in our lives. And as we age, we find those early memories more vivid and positive.

Is it any surprise that boomers made a hit of the television show, “Happy Days?”

So, it’s safe to say that nostalgia is a natural and normal element of aging. But there is a cautionary tale in Norberg’s commentary. The past is not as idyllic as we remember it, and we need not fear that the future will be dystopian.

Remember the admonition that most things in life are never as good as we hope or as bad as we fear. Have a good 2021!

Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch and a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board. Twalch47@gmail.com.

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