Over the past couple of decades, scientists and researchers have investigated exactly what nostalgia is, as well as the role it plays in human life. This work has shifted the cultural and social perspective of nostalgia in dramatic ways.
For hundreds of years writers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and even social critics touted that engaging with nostalgia could be damaging and harmful to the human psyche. Today, scientists are probing more deeply into the questions that surround the experience of nostalgia and are coming up with some new conclusions.
What Is Nostalgia?
If you’ve ever smelled a particular scent that played a role in your childhood or listened to a song from the teenage years that immediately sent you into a deep reflection about your internal memories, then you have experienced nostalgia. The dictionary definition of nostalgia is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
Simply put, if you ever find yourself deep within your own memories, especially happy memories from the past, then you have experienced nostalgia.
Is Nostalgia Good for You?
The origins of the word nostalgia date back to the late 17th century in reference to the acute homesickness mercenary soldiers felt when fighting in foreign wars. This negative association with nostalgia was maintained for years to come, as leading thinkers assumed that consistently looking back on old memories was psychologically damaging.
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However, recent research has confirmed that nostalgia is not usually, or even primarily, a negative experience. Even though nostalgia can sometimes be bittersweet during the moment of reflection, it can still serve many adaptive functions.
Because of this, a new body of research is exploring how to use nostalgia to promote increased well-being. Some practitioners are even incorporating nostalgia into therapeutic settings, developing a new frontier in a practice known as “nostalgia therapy.”
Nostalgia: Looking Back to Move Forward
There are a wide variety of proven benefits to nostalgia. Probably the most compelling evidence about the benefits of nostalgia is the research that shows nostalgia can motivate individuals to live more productive and fulfilling lives. Previously, researchers believed that if you were consistently thinking about the past, you would become unhealthily preoccupied with it, preventing you from living in the present.
In contrast, recent research has shown that when you reflect on the past, even if the memory is not completely positive, it can motivate you to move forward in a positive way because people draw on experiences from the past to shape the future.1
Whether you reflect on a success or a failure, you can still reap the motivational benefits of nostalgia. If you consider a success, you recall that it was possible to experience that level of achievement and feel more certain when moving forward. If you consider a failure, you can recognize the gains you have already made that brought you to the current moment and feel more motivated to make a change moving forward.
One study which explored the connection between addiction and nostalgia demonstrated this point in a fascinating way. Individuals who were having trouble quitting an addictive behavior were prompted to reflect on the person they were before they had an addiction.2 They were then brought in for review thirty days later.
The study showed that those who were prompted to engage in the nostalgia for the person they used to be more likely to attempt to quit their behavior over the month. The more severe their addiction, the more likely they were to attempt to quit.
Other Benefits of Nostalgia
Another counterintuitive benefit to nostalgia is the increase in self-esteem and a sense of interconnectedness that it can create in individuals. Many people think about old memories when they find themselves alone or in a new environment. Nevertheless, research has demonstrated that even these reveries are actually beneficial.3
When you reflect on past relationships or times in your life where you felt socially connected or accepted, you are reminded that this is a possibility. This increases overall optimism, making room for you to consider that you could have those feelings again in your life, even if they are not present in the current moment. In this way, reflecting on times when you felt good in your life, even if they were long ago, can help you make changes in the present.
So what is nostalgia, really? Unlike what many individuals believed in the past, the act of considering past memories that bring you joy and remind you of the best times in your life can have incredible benefits. Consider incorporating the practice of sinking back into past memories and take note of the benefits you experience. You could be on your way to making some truly positive changes in your life.
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