Nostalgia and Upper Bounds

Nostalgia products have made a comeback. Whether it’s Timehop’s daily peek down memory lane, Facebook inserting memories1 into your feed, or Apple tucking away old photos into iOS Quick Actions, companies are trying to find meaningful ways to resurface the past.

While I enjoy these features, I’d like to highlight a consequence many of them overlook: causing users to erroneously compare the present to the past. This is especially critical when you’re going through a tough time in life.

I came to this realization after rounding out my third year of journaling every day. Before heading to bed each night, I’ll spend ten minutes recapping the day and picking a single photo to represent it2. This has allowed me to build a personal time capsule like no other. I’d often catch myself randomly recapping old memories while riding the subway home or in-between snoozes before getting out of bed. While reflection is healthy in small, periodic doses, it’s tempting to fall into a trap of comparing where you are now against where you were n years ago. This comparison is helpful in concrete domains such as personal fitness, but breaks down in subjective areas like relationships. For example, I’ve had to overcome the tendency of comparing my happiness while single to how I felt when in past relationships. These two phases are incomparable. Time may be linear, but experiences in my life aren’t. This took me a while to internalize.

A second-order effect of these unfair comparisons is the tendency to view favorable memories as ‘upper bounds’ in life. Culturally, we often do this. Take the adage that your “college years will be the best of your life”, for example. Believing this is shortchanging yourself. Instead, I try to catch myself when I have these thoughts and invert them to lower bounds. Your past should serve as a springboard into the present and future. Another trick I’ve found useful is to check services like Timehop at night, as opposed to the morning. This allows me to tackle the day anew and prevent the aforementioned comparison.

A related (and more general) concept I’ve been thinking about is the notion of write-only feeds. What if we designed a journal that only allowed you to create entries3? This might allow one to experience the cathartic benefits of writing, while reducing the urge to compare distinct points in time. More generally, imagine if services like Twitter allowed tweets to be posted at any time, and only surfaced the feed during specific, limited hours of the day. That could do wonders in eradicating continuous partial attention. But, that’s for another post!

It’s never been easier to revisit old memories—but the repetitive juxtapositions in today’s nostalgia products make it easy to draw inequitable comparisons between who you are now and who you were in the past. The key is applying what you know from the past to make the present and future a beautiful place to be.

1: Also known as “On This Day”

2: I’ll often use screenshots!

3: Only allowing viewing on longer timescales (e.g. 5–10 years)