The Benefits of Nostalgia

Studies show that reminiscing about the past boosts our self-esteem and resilience.

If unpleasant or obsessional, past memories can hurt -- but nostalgia is good for you. The benefits of this practice (described as "pleasant reminiscing") can link us together in shared comforts of tradition, creating a sense of continuity in our lives.

Nostalgia comes in many forms: Watching an old black-and-white movie can trigger a cultural nostalgia for a lost period in time. Often such longing can predate one's own date of birth: fondness for a time only your parents may have known and talked about.

The mental journey back through time adds a fourth dimension to the present. If mindfulness focuses on the Eternal Now, nostalgia forms a special union with the timeless past, expanding our concept of the self. The future may be vague, inchoate and unpredictable; but the past represents a finished whole that cannot be harmed or tampered with.

Documented reasons why nostalgia (when used intelligently) can be good for us:

It allows us to shred the excesses of modern life by traveling back to a period of our own choosing. It's like escaping into the confines of a good book or a darkened theater, but in this case the story is real and (if chosen wisely) has been assured a happy ending.

Especially for the elderly, frequently isolated from loved ones and familiar surroundings, recapturing the past often results in maintaining a positive outlook — one that leads to purposeful activities, such as telling stories and sharing wisdom from a bygone era.

According to Dena Kemmet, "an additional function of nostalgia may be its motivating potential. Nostalgia may boost optimism, spark inspiration, and foster creativity."

According to Dr. Clay Routledge, Social Psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University, "Nostalgia increases positive mood, self-esteem, feelings of social connectedness, optimism about the future, and perceptions of meaning in life. Furthermore, nostalgia motivates people to focus on cultivating meaningful relationships and pursue important life goals. In addition, as people get older, nostalgia makes them feel youthful and energetic. Nostalgia also reduces existential fears about death."

The emotion of nostalgia can be evoked by a familiar scent, an old photograph, or a cherished song. Often it occurs during periods of sadness or transition, but it can occur anytime — affecting the young as well as old. Even children as young as eight-years-old can experience the wistfulness of times past.

How nostalgic are you? The research of Krystine Batcho has inspired others to create a fun quiz on the subject, to determine one's degree of wistful thinking. A higher score indicates a person more attuned to life and more adaptable to life's vicissitudes.

The healthy use of nostalgia is not about retreating into the past. On the contrary, exploring the treasures of our "mental" time capsules can propel us toward the future. The regular practice of this discipline has been found to be correlated with increased resilience and self-confidence.

For some, nostalgia can come to resemble a spiritual meditation. Indeed, the past is more venerated in places where the future is more fleeting — where constant change is often expected and demanded. The "cushion" against future shock may rest on the pillow of languid self-reflection, as opposed to our modern epoch: a period rooted in gross speed and frequent turmoil.

The judicious use of nostalgia — for each of us who feels stranded in the present — offers us an anchor to the past.

Written by John DiPrete

Another version of this article appears in Psych Central.

The author has contributed to Psych Central, MacWorld, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Medical Hypotheses, Speculations in Science and Technology, among other outlets.

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