The illusion of the “good old days”

By Mario Bonfrisco


“Oh, the good old days”

I dare to assume that anyone has said or, if too young, heard this exclamation at least once in their lives.

People think of 2017 as one of the most troubled time – poor eating habits, poor work conditions or awful education system. In short, the general creed is “the world is going under”, which often leads to worry and feel powerless about the future.


But is this really such a catastrophic moment of the history? Or better, was the past actually such a great period when to live?

If we look at the realistic evidence, not going deeply into arguments such as the effect of technology in everyday life, we can see a positive development of the general world conditions over the last 200 years.

Two-hundred years ago 95% of the people were malnourished while nowadays only the 12%. Less than 200 years ago, only 10% of the population could read and write, now 95% is able to do it.

Studies also suggest that the twentieth century has shown overwhelming improvements in working conditions generally, falling hours, wages, flexibility in work and an increase of female participation in the workforce.[1]

What is more, around a century ago in the United States, 80% of an average family of 5’s income went towards housing and food, which 10% came from children. Today only 1% of an average family of 2.5’s income come from children and only 50% of the total income is spent on housing and food.[2] Meaning that more money and time nowadays is spent on travel, hobbies, entertainment and “having fun”.

Allegedly, the acclaimed “good old days” were not all that good for everyone.


So why do we perceive past years and experiences as better than our present?

According to various studies, we identify our past as “perfect” because our brain deceives us even about strong and important memories.  In 2015, a study conducted by Hirst et al. observed the effects of time (ten years) on memories, focusing on the attack of the 11th September 2001 in New York. The research showed that there was a rapid forgetting of flashbulb and event memories within the first year after the attack already, suggesting that even traumatic memories, which should be clearly fixed in our minds, may be inconsistent over time.[3]

Furthermore, researchers have discovered an interesting human’s tendency called “Rosy retrospection” factor, which leads people to remember and recollect events more fondly than they actually were at the time of the experiences.[4] This tendency seems to increase in people from their forties, when the “reminiscence bump” occurs, inducing them to remember their adolescence and early twenties more positively and fondly than any other period.[5]


Marketers often use this structural brain bias as the core of their selling strategies, also called “nostalgia marketing”, aiming to revoke old good feelings and link them to a brand or product.

If we look at the recent campaigns for the USA president elections or Brexit referendum, we will realise that politicians also do not ignore this advantageous factor, in fact, it is not unusual to come across statements such as “we will make the country great AGAIN!”

In conclusion, considering these unconscious distortions of our memories, it seems easy to think about our present as a dramatic and arduous period, making us worried and pessimist. However, if we analyse objective facts, we can argue against this notion and become more realistic optimists towards the future.






[1] Lindsay, C. (2003). A century of labour market change: 1900 to 2000. Labour Market Trends, 111(3), 133-44.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: 100 Years of U.S. Consumers Spending: Data for Nation, New York City, and Boston. From The Valley Times (Pleasanton, CA), June 24, 2006.

[3] Hirst, W., Phelps, E. A., Meksin, R., Vaidya, C. J., Johnson, M. K., Mitchell, K. J., … & Mather, M. (2015). A ten-year follow-up of a study of memory for the attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb memories and memories for flashbulb events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(3), 604.

[4] Mitchell, T. R., Thompson, L., Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal adjustments in the evaluation of events: The “rosy view”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(4), 421-448.

[5] Jansari, A., & Parkin, A. J. (1996). Things that go bump in your life: Explaining the reminiscence bump in autobiographical memory. Psychology and Aging, 11(1), 85.


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