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.”
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.
And consider this: Your nostalgia can affect those around you. Hepper says after nostalgizing, people donate more generously to charity. And sharing a nostalgic conversation with a friend, family member or romantic partner makes you more supportive and considerate, and less argumentative.
Making Nostalgia Work for You
People tend to nostalgize when they are in a negative mood or feeling lonely. Strategically using nostalgia may be just the thing to give you a welcomed fresh perspective. “Everyone has at least a few fond, precious memories that can be used as a source of nostalgia,” says Hepper. “Make the most of them by bringing them to mind when you need a little boost of positivity, warmth or meaning in your life.”
Here are three ways to do it:
Let the past inform your future: Feel your motivation flagging? Recall personal milestones and past achievements in order to reinvigorate your energies and stay focused on achieving your current goals.
The most common subjects of nostalgia are the cherished or significant people, places and events in a person’s life. However, nostalgia doesn’t always involve positive memories. It can include negative experiences that, Routledge explains, “have positive or meaningful endings.” Hepper points out that a sad memory can be recast as a valuable learning experience. Focus on the sweet of bittersweet. “Imagine,” she says, “how you might feel a few years after moving to a new area where you didn’t know anyone and finding that, despite the anxiety, you could go it alone.”
Make nostalgia a group activity: Asking others to share their nostalgic memories with you is likely to give you all a psychological boost, says Hepper. “And you might be surprised what you learn about your friends or family members,” she adds. Indeed, keeping in touch with loved ones from all the stages of your life is a great way to maintain the connection between where you’ve been and where you are today. Routledge suggests taking a trip with old friends to bring you back in time and make you feel more youthful and energized. “Even a little contact on sites like Facebook can bring back memories,” he adds.
Create new memories and keep traditions alive: “Make deposits into the nostalgia bank that you can draw on when you need a boost in the future,” advises Hepper. What happens today will become the memories you hold onto forever.
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