Will We Ever Learn to Let Go?

This AP story about the movement to preserve old barns caught my eye:

The aging relics hold a certain romance for many, and interest is growing in numerous states in saving or at least documenting the rickety barns before they become victims of age and urban sprawl, the cost of maintenance too high when they no longer have a practical purpose.


“We figured if we’ve got a lot, we’ve got a lot to lose,” said Bill Hart, the field representative for the Columbia-based Missouri Preservation, a statewide nonprofit that was instrumental in the formation of the barn group. He added that the band of preservationists “pushed the panic button.”

The aversion to giving up anything that was once part of our lives is commonplace in American society. It’s the reason we mourn the loss of a Borders franchise that was providing no value, and it’s the reason 25 years from now people of my generation will mourn the loss of useless suburban malls. The question is, why is it so hard to let go?

One answer is our affinity for nostalgia and anything that produces it. A conclusive body of research, much of it led by nostalgia expert Clay Routledge, demonstrates that we use nostalgia to bolster a sense of meaning in life. Routledge explains:

In Western culture, it is regarded as unwise to be “living in the past.” Of course, a past-oriented state can be problematic, if it interferes extensively with living in the present and planning for the future. However, as the present research indicates, the past can also be a vital resource on which one might draw to maintain and enhance a sense of meaning. The present research broadens the functional landscape of nostalgia by demonstrating that this emotion serves a pivotal existential function.

The good news is that the seemingly arbitrary refusal to allow the past to die clearly serves an important purpose. The bad news is that if there are good ways and bad ways to increase “life-meaning,” preserving things that produce nostalgia falls into the latter category.

There are a number of reasons to be relatively anti-nostalgia. First, meaning derived from nostalgia seems unlikely to be particularly long-lasting or dependable. Seeing an old barn may raise your spirits, but it’s unlikely to make you feel good about life if you’re 75 and can’t think of anything important you’ve done. Second, nostalgia has little social value compared to “meaning-producing” things like helping people, creating something substantive, or building relationships. Third, because young people derive little benefit from nostalgia-driven preservation, any time these efforts involve public money or resources it’s essentially a transfer of value from the young to the elderly. That’s something there is already too much of in America.

The lesson is that although it may be hard, we should fight the urge to preserve, particularly in situations where there are high social costs (e.g. when it harms urban planning.) This will allow younger members of society to avoid a cost that brings them no benefits, and it will push older members of society to find meaning in life through more productive channels.
Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Hart, C., Juhl, J., Vingerhoets, A., & Schlotz, W. (2011). The past makes the present meaningful: Nostalgia as an existential resource. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (3), 638-652 DOI: 10.1037/a0024292

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