Being Nostalgic About the Good Old Days Brings Many Rewards
Updated: Mar 19
“Memories warm you up from the inside.” – Haruki Murakami
Since first coined by a Swiss doctor in the 17th-century, the meaning of the word nostalgia has changed quite dramatically over the years.
Today we think of nostalgia as a “sentimental longing for one’s past” but for centuries it was considered a debilitating medical disorder, initially referring to the extreme homesickness of military troops.
Nostalgia is a rather common feeling, experienced by most people. It’s sentimentality for a part for one’s past and almost daily reminders: photographs or videos, songs and stories, smells and tastes and even certain times of the year – all can spark nostalgic feelings.
The big upside to being nostalgic
Two psychologists from the University of Southampton in the U.K. head the Nostalgia Project, research dedicated to the cause of, and impact of being nostalgic.
Sedikides and Wildschut (2017) divided the memories of our past into three categories: rumination, counterfactual thinking and nostalgia. The first two tend towards the negative and often involve bitterness or regret about something that happened or didn’t happen in the past.
Nostalgia can get a bad rap and be easily lumped in with its pessimistic brothers. With societal obsession with new, young, shiny and advanced can make the past seem obsolete to many. With it, comes the false idea that being nostalgic means living in the past in order to avoid one’s present and future - despite how inviting that might seem at times.
The researchers found that nostalgia was distinct, however.
Study after study has shown that “nostalgia-prone” individuals enjoy a long list of benefits through looking back and even longing for the past. While an emotion that looks backwards, nostalgia has many present and future positive effects.
Nostalgia reinforces social connectedness
What is especially impressive is the sheer length of the list of benefits that nostalgia brings to the table.
Researchers have found that a primary role of nostalgia is tied to “intimacy maintenance” and what the people in our lives over time have meant to us, reminding us of our capability of having meaningful relationships.
Sentimental memories of loved ones over our life drive social connectedness. Studies show that when we are reminded of our relationships, we benefit with increased levels of acceptance, belonging and empathy, and reduced loneliness.
Nostalgia helps us feel loved and trust others more. It recharges our sense of connectedness and reduces our selfishness.
“I am all the ages I’ve ever been.” – Anne Lamott
When we look back fondly, it helps us make sense of and find meaning in our lives. It weaves a connection of our past to our present, helping us feel more complete.
This “self-continuity” contributes to our ability to see the big-picture of our life and helps drive another key advantage of being nostalgic: self-esteem and self-acceptance.
Nostalgia helps buffer the world’s threats on our self-worth and authenticity.
Nostalgia empowers the present and future too
Research has shown that being nostalgic helps in the facilitation and pursuit of goals. Nostalgic people tend to pursue growth-oriented behaviors and find more inspiration and meaning in their lives.
Being nostalgic has also been shown in increase levels of optimism and improve mood. It serves as a time-out from current negativity, transporting us back, refreshing a sense of the positive. It actually energizes us and increases our levels of vitality.
Nostalgia serves an important protective role
Amazing still, nostalgia serves an important protective role in our lives.
Research from the University of Southampton’s Nostalgia Project has found that nostalgia plays a key role in getting us through life’s ups and downs. They say that nostalgia grounds us during difficult times, allowing the ability to see the current problem as temporary and in so, developing our resilience and fortitude.
Being nostalgic serves as a defense mechanism, helping us to cope during highly stressful and challenging times. The Project’s Wildschut says, “nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states.”
Nostalgia is a loyal friend that understands that you are lost right now but reminds you of who you are, who you love, who loves you and what you’re capable of.
Nostalgia has shown to help people cope and encourages positive mental health. It reduces levels of anxiety, stress and even depression. There is even work being done on how nostalgia-therapy might be able to help with Alzheimer’s.
‘Nostalgic-prone’ or not?
Given all that, why do some people seem to become a person prone to nostalgia and others, not-so-much?
Sedikides and Wildschut’s research with children provide insight. They found that the key driver in whether a child became prone to being nostalgic was their parents' use of “mental time travel” where they were encouraged to remember back or think to the future.
Even better: Sedikides found that developing this ability to access nostalgia also made children more connected to others, more grateful and less selfish.
Anticipatory nostalgia as a tool
For us adults, it is possible to consciously tap into the power of nostalgia as a tool.
Knowing the upside, turning on music or movies from the parts of your life when you were happiest can help transport you back to a time before whatever is bringing you down today.
But it’s even possible to harness all this nostalgic goodness without even looking back. The things you do today are tomorrow’s nostalgia. Nostalgia-prone individuals use ‘anticipatory nostalgia’ to imprint a future fond memory – often doing something surprising to make it memorable.
An awesome soundtrack and delicious tastes and scents can later trigger a time you’ll be able to lean on when necessary.
Cheap, effective medicine
Any way you measure it, there’s a consensus on a range of nostalgia’s positive effects.
Like gratitude, nostalgia it turns out, is one of those magical emotions that can positively affect our lives, and in the process, protect and transform us. Who knew?
There is no pill out there with that kind of power.
And with the cost of healthcare, I say turn on the 80’s music.
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