But when exactly were the good old days? Podcaster Jason Feifer once devoted an episode of “Pessimists’ Archive” to this question. If you want to make America great again, he thought, you have to ask yourself when America was great. The most popular answer seemed to be the 1950s, so Mr. Feifer asked historians whether Americans in that decade thought it was particularly pleasant. Definitely not, they said. In the 1950s, American sociologists worried that rampant individualism was tearing the family apart. There were serious racial and class tensions, and everyone lived under the very real threat of instant nuclear annihilation.

Ron Howard (left) and Henry Winkler in a 1974 episode of ‘Happy Days,’ a TV show set in the 1950s.
PHOTO: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES
By Johan Norberg
Dec. 26, 2020 12:01 am ET
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If you visit Hagley Park in the West Midlands of England and make it to the big 18th-century house of the Lyttelton family, walk another half-mile to the east and you’ll come upon an exotic and impressive sight once you clear the trees. In front of you is what seems like the ruins of a Gothic castle. There are four corner towers, but only one is still standing, complete with battlements and an intersecting stair turret. The others are reduced to one or two stories and the wall connecting them has collapsed. You start thinking about the ancient history of which this place could speak, and wonder what spectacular building once stood here.

The answer is none. The ruin was constructed just like this in the mid-18th century, to give the impression that a magnificent medieval castle had fallen apart over many generations. Building ruins from scratch was the height of fashion for European aristocrats at the time, using shattered castles and crumbling abbeys to create an imaginary, romantic past. Hagley Park is a selective, artificial version of history—just like the politics of nostalgia that is so popular today.

People in many countries are longing for the good old days. When asked if life in their country is better or worse today than 50 years ago, 31% of Britons, 41% of Americans and 46% of the French say it’s worse.

Psychologists say that this kind of nostalgia is natural and sometimes even useful: Anchoring our identity in the past helps give us a sense of stability and predictability. For individuals, nostalgia is especially common when we experience rapid transitions like puberty, retirement or moving to a new country. Similarly, collective nostalgia—a longing for the good old days when life was simpler and people behaved better—can also be a source of communal strength in difficult times.
But when exactly were the good old days? Podcaster Jason Feifer once devoted an episode of “Pessimists’ Archive” to this question. If you want to make America great again, he thought, you have to ask yourself when America was great. The most popular answer seemed to be the 1950s, so Mr. Feifer asked historians whether Americans in that decade thought it was particularly pleasant. Definitely not, they said. In the 1950s, American sociologists worried that rampant individualism was tearing the family apart. There were serious racial and class tensions, and everyone lived under the very real threat of instant nuclear annihilation.

In fact, many in the 1950s thought that the good old days were to be found a generation earlier, in the 1920s. But in the 1920s, the pioneering child psychologist John Watson warned that because of increasing divorce rates, the American family would soon cease to exist. Many people at the time idealized the Victorian era, when families were strong and children respected their elders. But in the late 19th century, Americans were worried that the unnatural pace of life brought on by railroads and telegraphs had given rise to a new disease, neurasthenia, which could express itself in anxiety, headaches, insomnia, back pain, constipation, impotence and chronic diarrhea.

People have been longing for the good old days at least since the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered Sumerian cuneiform tablets which complain that family life isn’t what it used to be. One tablet frets about “the son who spoke hatefully to his mother, the younger brother who defied his older brother, who talked back to the father.” Another, almost 4,000 years old, contains a nostalgic poem: “Once upon a time, there was no snake, there was no scorpion…/The whole world, the people in unison/To [the god] Enlil in one tongue gave praise.”