Nostalgia: How to Think About Your Past for a Brighter Future

Being nostalgic can raise your mood and self-esteem, connect you with others and give your life more meaning.

| October 2nd, 2013


Think About Your Past for a Brighter Future

Remember basking in the glow of your senior prom and never wanting that night to end? And what about the excitement and joy you felt when you landed your first job? 

If you find yourself recalling a fond memory and wishing you could recapture that moment, give in. It may give you the boost you need to deal with a current challenge, or to simply feel better—not just about your past or present, but also about your future.

Nostalgia is much more than mere reminiscing; it’s a feeling. “Nostalgia is the warm, fuzzy emotion that we feel when we think about fond memories from our past,” explains Erica Hepper, Ph.D., a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey in England. “It often feels bittersweet—mostly happy and comforting, but with a tinge of sadness that whatever we’re remembering is lost in some way.”

MORE: How to Wallow Safely in Sadness

According to Clay Routledge, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, reminiscence is the behavior of reflecting on your past, and nostalgia is the emotional response that it sometimes triggers.

Hepper and Routledge agree that nostalgizing is a very natural human tendency, and a common one. On average, people engage in it about once a week, set off by such things as a familiar scent, piece of music or old photo. It is most common in young adults in their teens and 20s who are coping with important life transitions, such as leaving home and beginning college or new jobs, and in adults older than 50 who are looking back and reevaluating their lives. But you don’t have to have a lot to look back on in order to feel a nostalgic wave; children as young as 8 years old get that wistful feeling, too.

A lot can be said for nostalgia’s benefits. In a 2012 study published in the journal Memory, Routledge and his colleagues showed that nostalgizing helps people relate their past experiences to their present lives in order to make greater meaning of it all. The result can boost their mood and reduce stress. “Nostalgia increases feelings of social connectedness to others,” he says. “Nostalgia makes people feel loved and valued and increases perceptions of social support when people are lonely.”

“When we experience nostalgia,” Hepper explains, “we tend to feel happier, have higher self-esteem, feel closer to loved ones and feel that life has more meaning. And on a physical level, nostalgia literally makes us feel warmer.” In addition, in an August 2013 study published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hepper and her colleagues showed that nostalgia can produce increased optimism about the future.

MORE: The Science of Scent and Memory

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