We all know people who love to reminisce about memories from the past. Sometimes it’s charming, but if it’s done too often, you might feel tempted to shake your relative or friend and say, “Snap…
We all know people who love to reminisce about memories from the past. Sometimes it’s charming, but if it’s done too often, you might feel tempted to shake your relative or friend and say, “Snap out of it! Come back to the here and now.” Well, you may want to think twice about doing that because research has found that nostalgia can be good for your health and emotional well-being.
Whether you listen to music you used to love, look at old photos, page through yearbooks or watch movies that take you back to happy times, you can evoke nostalgia to benefit your state of mind in myriad ways. Strolling down a pleasant memory lane can improve your mood and stimulate inspiration and motivation, research has found. Nostalgia can provide you with a window into your authentic self, according to a series of studies published in a 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and it can give you a greater sense of meaning in your life.
What’s more, “people who are high in nostalgia cope in healthier ways with difficult situations — by expressing their emotions, connecting with other people and being more willing to ask for advice or practical help,” explains Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, who has been studying nostalgia since 1995. “With nostalgia, stress can be met with a unified sense of who you are.”
— Helps you handle tough situations in healthier ways
— Can give a greater sense of meaning in your life
— Improves relationships
Harnessing Powerful Psychological Resources
Because nostalgic recollections connect your past to your present self, these reminiscences can help you develop, maintain or restore a sense of personal identity by weaving together the threads of your life’s story. This may be one reason why research in a 2018 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that nostalgia helps enhance psychological resources — including social connectedness, meaning in life, self-continuity, optimism, self-esteem and positive mood — among people who have dementia. The belief is that engaging in nostalgia can help protect people’s sense of self from anxiety related to death, aging and other potential threats.
“Nostalgia builds up psychological resilience: Compared to an ordinary memory, nostalgia is like putting on an extra layer of clothing before you go out into a winter’s night; the coat buffers you against the threat of the cold air,” explains study co-author Richard Cheston, a clinical psychologist and professor of dementia research at the University of the West of England. “Nostalgic memories are very different from other sorts of memory — they have a particular emotional quality, and concern memories that are central to how people see themselves.”
Interestingly, these emotionally charged memories can confer health-related benefits, as well. A study published in a 2016 issue of the journal Psychology & Health found that people who were instructed to write about a nostalgic event subsequently scored higher on measures of health optimism and health attitudes than those who wrote about ordinary events. The nostalgic group also increased their physical activity over the next two weeks, according to their Fitbit activity trackers.
You can even use the power of nostalgia to benefit your relationships. A pair of studies in the October issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that remembering the good times in a romantic relationship provides a temporary boost to your satisfaction with the relationship. “Nostalgia provides a way to mentally re-experience positive memories throughout a relationship: Positive feelings and fondness often accompany these memories, (which) can help promote satisfaction with the relationship,” explains study co-author Allen Mallory, a doctoral student in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas–Austin. But dwelling excessively on happy memories from the past can backfire in the long run, he adds, perhaps by calling attention to what’s missing from the current state of the relationship.
Of course, it’s not a good idea to live completely in the past or to long excessively for days gone by. (You’ll know you’ve reached the tipping point if you spend so much time reminiscing that it prevents you from actively living your life today.) “You don’t want to get stuck in nostalgia — you want to bring the best of the past forward, update it and use it in a helpful way,” Batcho says. “So make sure you psychologically schedule an endpoint (to your reminiscing).”
To keep nostalgia in the healthy zone, think about using lessons from the past to solve problems and enrich your life today.
If you’re missing people from your past, reconnect with them on social media or meet them for coffee if they live nearby. If you’re struggling with stress or disappointment, for example, reminiscing about a time when you felt hopeful about a possible success can help boost your optimism, resolve and resilience, Batcho says. Similarly, sharing memories of a loved one who died, with other people, can help you process your grief and integrate it with appreciation for the role that person played in your life.
In other words, you might think of nostalgia as a way to take a brief journey in your mental time machine: By reflecting on the best of your past, you can gather inspiration and insights that can help you retain or create a better future for yourself.