I frequently get homesick for the past, especially my early adulthood. Having fond memories, I get a bittersweet feeling when I go back to the days when I didn’t have to worry about childcare or running out of energy so I could go trekking with a friend at a moment’s notice or dance the night away at my wedding.
Doctors and psychiatrists did not always view nostalgia as a positive trait, despite the fact that I generally find it pleasant and even inspirational. Being “stuck in the past” was sometimes equated with being unable to adapt to new circumstances, as was the case with soldiers who harbored longings for their distant homes and felt lonely and dreaded. Not so long ago, some believed that nostalgia was a form of melancholy, a mental ailment that might cause anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances. Recent research on nostalgia, however, indicates that it can be beneficial for us, boosting our wellbeing, making us feel connected to others, and providing us with a sense of continuity in our lives. And when we need to handle life’s challenges, it seems to come on naturally. Nostalgia is not an issue; on the contrary, it can contribute to our life’ satisfaction and purpose.
These are three scientifically proven ways that nostalgia can be good for us.
1. Nostalgia makes us feel socially connected
When we feel nostalgic for the past, we frequently remember significant individuals who impacted our lives and gave us a sense of belonging. My personal nostalgic thoughts undoubtedly focus on moments when I was with the people and places I cherish. So, it should come as no surprise that thinking back on these memorable moments would help us feel closer to everyone in general.
In one study, researchers discovered that those who were asked to write about a former experience that caused them to experience “sentimental desire for the past” had feelings of love and support, which served as a protective barrier against loneliness. According to a different study, when respondents had fond memories of interactions with “out-group” members — for instance, youth remembering good times with senior citizens — they felt less prejudice toward that group.
We also seem to retain our connections better when we are nostalgic. One study, for instance, discovered that evoking nostalgia made participants feel more upbeat about relationships in general and more eager to interact with friends. Another study discovered that when people are made to experience nostalgia, they feel better equipped to help the people in their lives emotionally (particularly those who have an easier time relating with others).
2. Nostalgia helps us find meaning in life
Knowing that your existence counts and that your life has coherence or purpose contributes to a sense of meaning in life. It’s something that we all aspire to in some fashion. Thankfully, research indicates that, by emphasizing significant events in our lives and creating a sense of continuity, nostalgia can be a valuable tool for deepening meaning.
Researchers compared nostalgia to two seemingly related ways of thinking about one’s life in one study: remembering a happy memory from the past or visualizing a desirable future. People felt that their life had more meaning when they concentrated on a nostalgic event rather than planning for a desirable future. In addition, compared to the other two reflections, nostalgia lessened the need for people to look for a purpose in their lives because they already believed life had meaning.
“Newer research on nostalgia suggests that it can be healthy for us, enhancing our wellbeing and fostering a sense of community and continuity in our lives.” In a different study, participants read the lyrics to ancient songs or listened to music that reminded them of a specific period in time. These nostalgic pursuits boosted their feeling of purpose in life while also making them feel cherished and socially connected. Also, when respondents read an essay that encouraged them to believe that life was meaningless and that there were roughly 7 billion people on the earth, they were encouraged to believe that. Consider for a moment: How significant are you in the overall scheme of things? – they naturally went to sentiments of nostalgia for solace from that sense of meaninglessness. These and other findings imply that nostalgia can both heighten your feeling of significance in life and serve as a buffer when that meaning is lost. Also, it could aid in your personal growth. According to one study, nostalgia can boost your motivation to work toward significant life goals because it enhances meaning rather than merely making you feel better.
3. Nostalgia can make us happier
Although it appears to do just that—improve our mood. Although nostalgia is by definition a mixed bag of positive and bad feelings, the positive side usually wins out, making us feel happy all around. One recent study involved randomly assigning 176 university students to a six-week nostalgia program in which they were required to write about a former experience that sparked “a nostalgic longing for the past” on a weekly basis (while a control group wrote about past events that were ordinary). They then discussed their degrees of positive and negative feelings as well as the extent to which the writing had given them a sense of social connection, meaning, or a link to their former selves. They also provided information on their level of life satisfaction, vitality, and well-being at various times.
The researchers discovered that, at least three weeks into the program, participants who experienced greater positive emotions, life satisfaction, and well-being also had fewer negative emotions. With the exception of those who entered the experiment already routinely engaged in nostalgia, these advantages largely vanished after that. They reported more life satisfaction and fewer negative feelings up to a month after completing the nostalgia program, presumably as a result of the program being a better fit for them.
4. Nostalgia puts us in touch with our authentic selves
We are the main characters in our own life stories when we reflect nostalgically on the past. Perhaps as a result, nostalgia gives us a sense of authenticity by allowing us to regard our life as continuous and cohesive. In one study, when given the opportunity to reminisce by writing about a period in the past, participants perceived their former selves as true reflections of themselves. As a result, they became less concerned with living up to the expectations of others than with fulfilling their own, genuine aspirations of themselves. In other words, it aided them in being who they truly were.
The researchers also looked into the possibility that when one’s sense of self is threatened, nostalgia may increase. “Many people believe that they have two sides to themselves,” was the text that was read by half of the participants. One side is the person they present to others; the other is their genuine selves, or the individuals they are at their core. Secondly, they wrote about instances in their lives when they had struggled to be completely honest with people. One-half of the participants wrote about their everyday schedules and how they were interrupted. Then, both groups discussed their sentiments of nostalgia as well as their good and negative emotions.
Results indicated that persons who concentrated on potential challenges to their sense of self-worth felt more negatively and more nostalgically. This shows that nostalgia shields us from threats to our authenticity and aids in connecting us with our “true selves.” Perhaps this is why experiencing nostalgia can help you grow as a person. At least one study discovered that experiencing nostalgia increased people’s feelings of self-worth, which in turn increased people’s willingness to try new things, broaden their horizons, and be curious—all indications of psychological well-being.
5. Nostalgia may help people who feel disillusioned or depressed
People frequently indulge in nostalgia when they’re feeling unhappy, lonely, or disillusioned, maybe as a result of these possible advantages. Several studies have indicated that nostalgia fosters a sort of emotional balance by shielding people from unfavorable mental emotions.
Yet that doesn’t imply that nostalgia is always positive or that it can’t have drawbacks. If nostalgia causes us to dwell on the past for an excessive amount of time, it could keep us from appreciating the happiness in the present. Also, since we often reminisce about unpleasant events, it could wind up being a coping mechanism that prevents us from dealing with current issues more skillfully. Encouragement of collective melancholy could potentially have unfavorable effects. For instance, a study indicated that participants were more willing to accept political assertions, regardless of their veracity, when they were nostalgic. Advertising strategies that appeal to nostalgia may influence consumer behavior, which may result in unwise decisions.
Nonetheless, it’s likely that nostalgia is more of a gift than a burden and a successful way to boost our self-esteem. It can strengthen our bonds with others, give us a greater sense of purpose in life, and make us happier. So why not indulge in nostalgia occasionally? It might just be what you need to overcome your current issues.