Is The Nostalgia Trap Cluttering Up Your Life?

Last week my wife and I saw the film “Nostalgia” (free of course!) courtesy of AARP’s “Movies for Grown-ups” program for its members and guests that they offer every month or two. Nothing quite like a great night out (with popcorn) and a movie for free! It was great seeing the “Black Panther” premiere the last time too. It’s just another reason why I love the AARP even though some of you have told me that you aren’t particularly a fan. Oh, I might just add that my membership is also free this year thanks to a deal I got through a Walgreen’s promotion, so can that be bad? But I digress, here. The movie we saw, Nostalgia, got us thinking quite a bit. It’s a series of stories about people’s relationships to their memorabilia or the memorabilia of their family members.

My wife and I saw the film Nostalgia last week, and it really started me thinking about the memorabilia and other trappings of nostalgia that many of us collect. So how do we keep these "treasures" from cluttering our homes and our lives?

What today’s post is all about is a little deeper than just seeing a free movie. It is about the role that nostalgia plays in our lives today and what it may mean to you and your family’s future.

What is Nostalgia, Really?

No one today calls a doctor when they feel a bout of nostalgia coming on. But back in the 1600’s and for 200 years after that, nostalgia was considered a dangerous disease that could trigger delusions, despair, and even death. A 17th-century Swiss physician coined the word to describe the debilitating pain felt by people who had left their home and gone away from their past lives. In the U.S. during the Civil War, Union Army doctors reported 5,000 serious cases of nostalgia, leading to 74 deaths. In Europe, physicians anxiously debated how to treat home-sickness and contain its spread. That’s how we thought of nostalgia in those days.

Today we think about nostalgia in a different way. It’s a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. It evokes thoughts like “I am nostalgic for my days in college” or other synonyms like longing, yearning, or pining for the past. It calls up reminiscence, remembrance, and sentimentality. It may not be quite the “sickness” that they thought it was in the 1600’s, but can it still be something of concern today?

What’s the Danger of Nostalgia in the 21st Century?

Do our wandering thoughts of our past cause us to spend too much time, attention, and even money on the past? Do we accumulate things and hold onto them forever? Do we put some of these memories above and beyond the current people in our lives even more than just a little? Can nostalgia be a huge trap in your life that can affect you and your family too?

There is some danger in spending way too much energy on the past and things. Collecting nostalgic memorabilia is more than just a hobby or a business for some people. It can actually become an obsession and as with any kind of an obsession is isn’t very healthy.

Who are the Nostalgic?

Almost by definition, the nostalgic are older people. You can’t really miss the past if you have none or very little of it! So it’s the older folks out there that usually talk about and think about “the good old days”. But here’s the catch. Someday soon, no matter who you are, you’ll be one of those folks too. You may wind up collecting all kinds of stuff, filling up boxes, and storing them in and around your drawers, closets, and garages. If it spills over to a storage shed that you are forced to rent, it really may be time to call in the doctor.

I Plead Guilty to Being Trapped!

I have a grossly huge collection of baseball memorabilia that I have saved for over 60 years. It started when I was a child saving my baseball cards and continues even today, so much so that my kids often give me gifts of things like yearbooks, cards, and autographed photos. I even have a full sized bedspread someplace with a team logo on it.

But the truth is that almost everything I have saved and considered to be my nostalgia craving sits in boxes collecting dust in a closet. Many of them have been that way for years and years. Yes, I do think about them every once in a while and get a little reminiscent about them, but they are basically only for me. I don’t share them, I don’t look at them, and I don’t ever plan on selling any of them. Truth be told, I don’t even have anyone who would be interested in getting them when the day comes along that I am no longer around! And I am sure I am not alone.

My Experience with My Mom

In the movie Nostalgia, there is a part that deals with the accumulation of things and what happens when someone leaves it all behind them after they pass on. I personally have had to deal with that myself. When my Mom died in 2003, I was the one in the family that had to go and sort through her belongings. There seems to always be one person who does that sort of thing.

My Mom saved everything. I mean everything. It included things like favors she got from a wedding she attended in the 1940’s and just about every birthday card any of us had ever received, to thousands of photos she saved from her childhood and our family too. Boxes and boxes, a basement full of things, many of which had come from my grandparents that she inherited and couldn’t bear to part with.

I combed through it all taking weeks to pick out just a few things that I thought were important to her and thus important to me. There was no plan for it. I just had a feeling that something had to be saved and it just wasn’t all going to wind up being trash. I gave away some furniture and took some photos (which I promptly scanned into my computer) and have a few small tchotchkes on a shelf in my living room to remind me of Mom. But, in the end, very little of it was something I wanted to save or anyone else wanted.

You Have to Think About Your “Stuff” and Have a Plan

Most likely, unless you have things of “real” value like jewelry or stocks and bonds, no one is very interested in your nostalgia and souvenirs from your past. If you think they do, it’s a good idea to ask them before it’s too late if they want something and you want them to have it. It may help you feel better about such things and also give you a very good reason to declutter your living space. The time that many people consider doing any of this is when they move or downsize their lives, especially as senior citizens. But even with that, many of us will just pack it all up with us and begin storing them all over again when we move.

No one is going to scold you for being nostalgic, but they may be frustrated when they have to go through your things and feel badly about having to dispose of some of those memories. I know I did.

So How Can You Avoid Being Trapped by Nostalgia?

One lesson to learn about spending so much time, money, and energy on nostalgia is this one: it seems to be much better to focus on the people in your current life that you love and care for rather than dwell in only the past and your memories. You will always retain your memories as long as you are in a healthy state of mind and you can share those memories verbally with your family and friends. I can honestly say that I always enjoyed hearing stories of the past from my parents and grandparents whenever we would sit around and wax nostalgic. The artifacts and clutter, not so much.

So having said all of that, I guess I have just given myself a pretty good reason to start wading through my baseball “junk” and start the process of decluttering. There’s probably some money to be made and some gift things that might find a new home somewhere. I will probably spend hours recalling the days when I experienced “the game” or got “the autograph” and it will seem fresh like the day it happened I am sure. But, more importantly, it will be the chance to refocus on the here and now and those in my life that deserve my thoughts and attention rather than spend too much time reminiscing the past. It’s an idea that I think is a good one and maybe spending more time with family and friends can foster some new memories to enjoy.

Sometimes a movie can really make you think.

Do you spend a lot of your time thinking about the past? Are you a collector, or even worse a hoarder, of memorabilia and things that most others would consider “junk”? Are you spending money needlessly on all of your old “stuff” by storing it or even buying it? Do you have any plans for your things and have you ever thought about the people who will have to go through everything you have left behind?


  1. I’m a bit of a collector, but really don’t have much stuff these days. I still have a small stash of comic books from my teenage years. It great to have them to share with my kids today. It is interesting to see my children really don’t have an attachment to stuff like my generation or my parent’s generation.

    1. I agree with your assessment. I don’t think the kids of today are as interested as we used to be. I mean as a child, I collected comic books, baseball cards, even bottle caps (because we used to play great games with them). Today, the only thing I see kids actually collecting would be video games. But, that’s the 21st century.

  2. I try to go through my stuff every so often and get rid of things that I don’t use, even if I’m nostalgic about them. I still haven’t been able to throw out my prom princess sash, which is silly. And my yearbooks get no use, but they’ve stuck around too. Still, overall I think I’ve pared down my stuff relatively well for anyone who would have to go through it.

  3. Holly

    Maybe there is a local youth baseball team in your area, a coach, or a school that you could donate your baseball collection to? Maybe a local sports museum? I’m not nostalgic. I say enjoy it, and when it sits there collecting dust, pass it along to someone new, pay it forward kind of thing. I think you’d feel great doing that. Those items are doing nothing sitting in boxes, give them new life somewhere else.

  4. For most things, I don’t have much nostalgia. For gits however, I do have a problem. It’s difficult for me to get parted with something I was gifted. Even small things I will never use again. I prefer to keep them. I’m getting better at it, but still difficult. I think Nostalgia can be a big issue for a lot of people.

    Thanks for the nice post Gary.

    1. I can understand the idea that when you receive a gift, it would be difficult to part with it, especially when it’s given by someone who really cares about you. To add a touch of humor to this, I’m wondering if you’ve ever seen the TV series Seinfeld where the subject of “regifting” was an entire episode. It might put a smile on your face to watch this clip: It may lighten up a little our more serious conversation. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Prudence Debtfree

    “it seems to be much better to focus on the people in your current life” Yes to that! What an interesting history of the concept of nostalgia! I didn’t know that it used to be considered a real illness. I have it to some degree, but I’m getting more ruthless with time:) I wonder if your baseball cards would fetch you some money?

    1. Yes, I found the origins of nostalgia to be very interesting. As far as my personal collection of baseball memorabilia goes, I will try to find some of them to give away and in the cases of anything that’s somewhat valuable, I’m planning to look at eBay and see what I can come up with. I appreciate your suggestion.

  6. I agree that moving is a great force for getting rid of stuff. It seems silly to cart away a box you never open to put it someplace else, never to be opened.

    Do you think any of your collection would be useful in a nursing home? They often have parlor rooms and playrooms. You could place a few calls to the activities directors. Also, I could see a wheelchair or bed bound man getting a kick out of that bedspread.

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