Nov 12, 2022

Something that’s been on my mind recently is how, after a few years, “bad” experiences can resurface as fun memories. I hated waterpolo practice during high school, but nowadays I think of those seasons as good times, and I’m grateful for the exercise.

My question is why does nostalgia hurt? I realize that it is in the origins of the word, but wonder if there is some correlation between the way one experiences nostalgia and one’s sentiment about the upcoming future. It seems natural enough that the more one dislikes the future the more likely one is to experience strong feelings of “nostalgic depression.” While this observation may be obvious to many, I think it’s worth really thinking about because, after all, I would like to be able to both be happy about the past and the future - in this way, I am trying to explore what it is that makes this task so difficult for me. So, let’s start with the present. The present is the perspective we apply when we judge our post and prophesize our future. I think my problem is that of the false premise. One of the first things taught in a logic course is that anything can be true following a false premise and in this context everything will seem bad when you’re not happy with where you currently are in life.

Great, so to feel better about nostalgia, just be happier. This is like proving a great bound in number theory that shocks the world for 2 seconds until everyone realizes it’s contingent on the generalized Riemann hypothesis.

the future

What makes us pessimistic about the future? Speaking for only myself, my negative feelings towards the future are often caused by anxiety I will not realize the gains I believe I’m capable of realizing. More simply, I am under self-imposed pressure to succeed (probably like most of the readers of this). Everyone can go to their therapist and get ten “tried-and-true” solutions to these anxieties and I don’t really doubt that they actually work, but I think an approach that has been helpful for me has been to think about my anxiety in terms of variance. This assumes a baseline level of self-confidence that I am capable of making +EV decisions. In this framework, the problem reduces to anxiety about your own level of risk tolerance. Am I taking on the right amount of variance? Categorize the decisions you make into variance buckets and perhaps for you that kind of clarity will be as useful as it was to me. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m still anxious.

the past

No one really remembers the low-variance decisions they made. By nature, we’re inclined to remember the big coin-flips, regardless of how they ended up. Nostalgia seems to be biased towards lower variance events. I don’t feel nostalgic about sneaking out of my summer camp dorm rooms to hold hands with a girl and walk around. I do feel nostalgic about sitting at the cafe I used to frequent back at school. I feel nostalgic about sitting - doing nothing, maybe talking to E or N - in the rec room during my final year of high school. I tend to feel this way about the low-variance, routine things that I don’t get to do anymore. Thinking about it this way makes me belive that there really is no way to avoid the pain that comes with nostalgia. I mean, the word has stuck around for a reason; certainly I’m not the first to try. That desire to go back and relive the past contains within it the fundamental wish for arbitrage: risk-free positive expectancy. You can’t be someone that likes arbitrage too much (thank you SBF for being a great example).

So what to do with what I argue are invetible rainy-afternoon feelings? Enjoy that feeling of changing into fresh slacks and a soft shirt.

P.S. You know what’s really cool? Watching birds fly straight up from the ground. It’s the only time you can see a bird try.