What’s Behind “Lockdown Nostalgia”?

6 min read

In the early weeks of the pandemic, life seemed to come to a halt; life was more chaotic than ever. Sourdough starter bubbled away; morgue vans lined the street. It felt endless; it was only supposed to last a few weeks.

By the end of the first month, two and a half thousand people were dying each day. Yet in what became a hallmark of the pandemic’s surreality, for some it was oddly peaceful. “There was a simplicity to life,” says Daniel Rotsztain, an urban geographer in Toronto. “All of a sudden, you have no choice but to be where you are.” 

Whatever early hope and optimism people harbored in March 2020, it soon disappeared. “Even by that first summer I was like, oh, things are different. ‘We’re all in this together’ crumbled,” says Rotsztain. “It was quite quick, actually, that the rug was pulled out from that pandemic innocence.”

Rotsztain, who tweeted about “nostalgia for the innocence of lockdown” in April of this year, isn’t alone in pining for those early days. With coronavirus stubbornly lingering, “pandemic fatigue” has fueled widespread longing for the perceived simplicities, innocence, and sense of togetherness of the early days of COVID-19.

Nostalgia has a bad reputation. At best, it’s seen as a guilty indulgence, and at worst, the refuge of people who would rather forget the worst of the past than live in the present. But in traumatic situations like the pandemic, it may actually come in handy, says Krystine Batcho, PhD, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College who has spent decades researching nostalgia.

In fact, recent research has found that nostalgia often combines happiness and sadness into a constructive narrative that can contribute to processing, and ultimately moving on from, traumatic experiences. “Nostalgia, the personal kind, has been associated with very healthy aspects of well-being,” says Batcho, “such as empathy, compassion, forgiveness, social connectedness, belonging … anxiety reduction, continuity of self, [and] optimism.”

Now that the camaraderie of the early pandemic is long dissipated, the sense of connectedness that nostalgia can bring may be more attractive than ever. With most COVID-19-related restrictions lifted, many are once again experiencing the traditional stressors of pre-pandemic life, such as rigid in-person work schedules and traffic congestion. Yet new coronavirus strains continue to emerge. People still get and die from the disease (nearly 400 per day in the U.S. alone, as of October). And new lockdowns, particularly in China, are reminders that COVID-19 remains a serious threat. For some, it’s the worst of both worlds.

This situation has spawned conflicting and confusing emotions: joy and relief over much-reduced social restrictions, but fear and frustration about enduring coronavirus dangers and uncertainties. On top of this, according to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans are now experiencing hardship due to the inflation that began during the pandemic. 

When we are in such conflicted emotional states, nostalgia can play a role in maintaining emotional stability, explains Batcho. Research suggests that revisiting positive memories may play a part in our brains’ instinctive impulse to counterbalance negative feelings.

“Nostalgia is an excellent choice for that,” says Batcho. “Because, by definition, it is itself bittersweet. And so, it’s one of the few parts of the way our brain and our mind function that tries to blend, or put together, conflicting forces, in this case, emotions.”

The past is fixed, but present circumstances and emotions can tint our view of it, rendering memories in a more pleasant light. 

It makes sense, then, that some people, especially those for whom the spring of 2020 wasn’t all that bad in the first place, have a romanticized memory of it.

“Memory is extremely malleable and different groups may have different interpretive memories of the same event,” says Yağmur Karakaya, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, who studies nostalgia as a collective force. “COVID-19, the way we experienced it, was extremely unequal.” (A few countries, including Japan and Sweden, and seven U.S. states never implemented COVID-19 lockdowns.)

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest global traumatic events of the social media age, which has elevated nostalgia to a constant in users’ lives. It’s now insidiously easy to locate old photos and correspondences, while features like auto-generated “memories” palpably nostalgize the everyday. In fact, many of the lockdown memories expressed on social media are nostalgic for social media itself – in particular, the boom in TikTok’s popularity and diversity of content while more than half of the world’s population was under stay-at-home orders during the spring of 2020.

“When TikTok was best,” wrote Joe Pearce, a 17-year-old student from High Wycombe, England, over a wistful TikTok video earlier this year. “Absolutely nothing to think about, FaceTiming your mates all day and all night, not sleeping until 5 am.”

Some people returned to enjoyable activities that they had previously lacked time for, such as watching old films, riding a bicycle, or playing board games with family members.

“[Revisiting these] was actually a very positive thing … not so much for its inherent value or valence, but also because it was an antidote to the boredom, an antidote to loneliness [and] to the anxiety and stress,” says Batcho. “So it makes sense that people would have some nostalgia.”

The early sense of in-it-togetherness extended beyond social media. People banged on pots and pans in public displays of gratitude to frontline workers, while longtime neighbors suddenly discovered one another during socially distanced walks. Drastically diminished road and air traffic left a quietness, even in major cities, unprecedented in recent history.

But the novelties of the period, such as working or studying from home, began to wear off over time and as restrictions were lifted. And social rifts over responses to the pandemic appeared almost immediately. In March 2020, Gal Gadot and other celebrities faced widespread backlash for a tone-deaf rendition of “Imagine.” In May, an anti-vaccine YouTube video posted in May 2020, for example, rapidly received more than 8 million views.

Disenchantment with only partially effective coronavirus countermeasures and enduring pandemic-inflicted inconveniences has triggered longings for the blissful ignorance of spring 2020, when it was widely assumed that coronavirus would pass swiftly and entirely.

“People who make fun of people who look back at ‘lockdown’ with nostalgia don’t understand what we’ve since lost,” tweeted a young mother from Texas in July. “The belief that the current crisis will indeed end and we will have our full lives back.”

Nostalgia for mass traumatic events is nothing new. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit among Britons during World War II is still nostalgized on decorative products based on government posters intended to boost morale during devastating air raids. And New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote of “a certain longing and nostalgia” for the sense of American solidarity in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And unlike those cases, the very nature of the pandemic is isolating; the yearning for togetherness is even stronger. 

Every year on Sept. 11, Americans can gather and commemorate that tragic day together. On March 11, Japan remembers the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 20,000 people. These kinds of official memorials help people process collective trauma and move past it. But so far, there is no Pandemic Day. The pandemic isn’t even over; how could we move on?

Karakaya postulates that a lack of official, collective commemoration of the COVID-19 pandemic and its victims, such as remembrance ceremonies or memorials, may contribute to highly individualized early pandemic nostalgia often untempered by the bigger picture. Since President Biden’s televised moment of silence for the victims of the pandemic in February 2021, hundreds of thousands more people have died.

“If we had a collective intervention, on a state level, maybe we could have remembered it in the way it should be remembered,” she says. “As a massively traumatic event.” 

Batcho predicts that wistfulness for the early pandemic will wane in most people over time as they tire of revisiting a finite set of memories. And until it does, nostalgia may not be such a bad thing. 

So while some on social media have expressed embarrassment at their early-pandemic nostalgia (“The stupidest emotion ive ever experienced,” tweeted one), there’s really no reason to be ashamed of revisiting those strange, shower-free days of binge-watching, boredom eating, and often overdue bonding.

“Adversity in itself, while you’re going through it, can be an extremely negative, stressful experience,” says Batcho. “But if you come out the other end as a survivor, then, later in life, you look back at that longingly. Not for the adversity itself, but for the fact that you’ve overcome it.”