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Feeling Final: the nostalgia effect

Nostalgia is generally thought of as a sentimental feeling for the past, whether that be a longing for that time to come again, or merely an idealised, rose-tinted memory. This is something I’ve been experiencing in buckets as the end of third year approaches. A sentimental memory of first and second year has combined with a sentimental longing for pre-Covid days, making the usual finalist nostalgia altogether more intense.

This combines a longing for the days when exams didn’t matter and I hadn’t had my first career crisis with a longing for a time when we could touch other people and go places.

Overall, this leaves first and second year looking pretty good right now – a time when life was simpler, the work was easier, and everything was altogether nicer. It even feels like the Oxford weather was better back then – in winter it seemed to snow more, and rain less, and the sun shone all of Trinity term.

But, of course, things may not be exactly as they seem. For every sunny day I remember from that ‘perfect summer’, there would have been a day where it rained that has now slipped my mind. And really, was first year so perfect? Sunk into the recesses of the past are the memories that aren’t so lovely. The homesickness and the tears from fresher’s week, the friendship drama, the two-day hangovers, the exam stress – because Prelims work did feel important at the time.

Such a distortion of the past can be psychologically explained by the phenomena of ‘rosy retrospection’, which is a kind of cognitive bias that encourages us to look upon the past more fondly than we do the present. It alludes to the saying about ‘rose-tinted glasses’, where we look back on the past through a romantic filter, forgetting the bad and immortalising the good.

But nostalgia doesn’t always imply a biased memory – things actually were comparatively better pre-pandemic. One example of a particular area of life that actually was pretty good is clubbing, something for which I find myself feeling increasingly nostalgic.

I know I’m not alone when I say I miss the club. There’s a level of freedom provided by that setting that cannot be achieved in normal life. Realistically, it is just a dark room with loud music and overpriced alcohol, but after a few drinks and with the right combination of friends and good tunes it becomes something much more than that, more than the sum of its parts. It allows everyone to dance like no-one is watching, and to sing like no-one can hear you. It’s a place for one-time romances, for passion and laughter and freedom. Perhaps this is the nostalgia talking – absence, after all, makes the heart grow fonder.

Of course, I also remember the not-so-good bits: the queuing, the grim toilets and the Fever sweats, not to mention the aching feet, hangovers and, occasionally, the regret that morning brings. But on balance, the experiences were good ones, and when we’re finally allowed back, it’ll be something to learn not to take for granted.

Because we will be back there eventually, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. Ultimately, there are good times ahead of us, as well as behind us.

With illustration by Miles Sheldon