When Nostalgia Was Considered A Crippling Mental Illness

“We wallow in nostalgia but manage to get it all wrong. True nostalgia is an ephemeral composition of disjointed memories.” —Florence King, Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye

In A Nutshell

We think of nostalgia as being those moments when we fondly remember something that’s happened to us in the past. Nostalgia didn’t always have such a warm connotation though, and was originally thought to be a mental illness. Emigrants and soldiers would often fall victim to nostalgia, and it was thought that if it wasn’t stopped fairly quickly, it would end in victims wasting away and losing their ability to adjust and cope with daily life.

The Whole Bushel

We’re all struck by a sense of nostalgia sometimes, whether we’re remembering a family holiday, old schoolmates we’ve lost touch with, or those we’ve loved that are no longer with us. It’s a sad, melancholy feeling, often bittersweet and tinged with happiness and longing for other, better times. Nostalgia is universal, and when it was first “discovered” in 1688, it was considered a mental illness.

Medical student Johannes Hofer was one of the first to define exactly what nostalgia was. In 1688, he wrote a dissertation that defined it as an affliction of those who had left their home, and which struck them as they remembered fond memories and, in some cases, were crippled by the sense of longing that the memories brought. He said that acute symptoms were often caused when the afflicted individual was exposed to some sort of trigger that reminded them of home, like a song, a smell, or a certain food. (In some places frequented by Swiss soldiers, the playing of some nostalgia-inducing songs could mean death for those insensitive enough to bring such melancholy down on the soldiers.)

It was also said to be made worse by foreign lands and customs and was particularly evident in emigrants and students studying abroad.

Hofer defined nostalgia as a mental illness, citing cases in which people suffering from chronic nostalgia would fall into deep depressions. They would be consumed with sadness, apathy, and suffer from an inability to conform to or accept the customs of their new home. Because Hofer studied mostly Swiss subjects, it became known as the Swiss Illness.

There are records of the as-yet-unnamed nostalgia appearing before Hofer’s studies; during the Thirty Years’ War, Spanish soldiers were discharged from service because they suffered so strongly from it that they were no longer capable of fighting. In the early 1700s, Russian troops could be expected to be buried alive if they succumbed to the so-called nostalgia virus. And during the United States’ Civil War, soldiers who grew nostalgic for their homes and families were publicly shamed and ridiculed until they got over it.

In the 19th century, physicians were still searching for a physical source of nostalgia. The definition of nostalgia as a mental disorder lasted into the 20th century, when it was called the “immigrant psychosis.”

More recently, studies have been conducted on nostalgia and have discovered that there are actually some benefits to it—a far cry from the ideas that contracting nostalgia would make a person give up on life and simply waste away. Researchers at the University of Southampton have found that indulging in a bit of nostalgic reminiscing might make a person sad for a short period, but in the long run, it serves as a comfort. People who are struck with nostalgia several times a week report being more optimistic about the future, and more comfortable with the concept of death as they know that they have already formed lasting memories in the past.

And reciting stories from the past often results in an even more powerful feeling of belonging, remembering those that you’ve shared past events with. In some people, nostalgia can even result in physical changes—namely, feeling a sense of spreading warmth.

Show Me The Proof

Archaeologies of Mobility and Movement, by Mary C. Beaudry, Travis G. Parno
NY Times: What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows
The Atlantic: When Nostalgia Was A Disease