Earlier this week, The New York Times ran an article called “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” and it quickly became the top news story on Twitter. The paper’s digital edition garnered almost 200 comments, and a number of people emailed it to me.
Clearly, the topic touches us all deeply, if in vastly different ways. Today there's a wealth of clubs, websites and publications dedicated to nostalgia and collectibles. But what I found most fascinating about the Times piece is how the writer, John Tierney, focuses on the benefits of nostalgizing.
“Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” he writes, citing research. “It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”
This has led scientists to suspect that nostalgia may be hard-wired into our brains as an adaptive behavior. Nostalgizing, says Tim Wildschut, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Southampton, “could contribute to survival by making you look for food and shelter that much longer.”
The cherry on top comes from Wildschut’s colleague Constantine Sedikides, a pioneer in the field: “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human.”
(MORE: Science Says Nostalgia Keeps You Warm)
The Benefits of Nostalgia
This is a refreshing change from older views of nostalgia, a word that by definition isn’t upbeat: It comes from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algo (pain or ache). "Nostalgia" was coined by a 17th-century Swiss doctor who used it as a label for the physical and psychological ailments homesick soldiers experienced. He called it “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” From that point on, the word acquired decidedly pathological connotations.
Sedikides began to change all that in 1999. Today he and the dozens of other researchers who are studying nostalgia have discovered that a) it’s a global experience, and b) one can intentionally use it to enrich the present moment.
“The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America,” Wildschut says. “The topics are universal — reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.”
While strolls down memory lane aren’t always entirely pleasant (often there’s a sense of loss or sadness), the overall benefits outweigh the negatives. “Nostalgic stories tend to end well, thanks to help from someone close to you,” Sedikides says, “so you end up with a stronger feeling of belonging and affiliation, and you become more generous toward others.”
Clay Routledge, a social psychologist and professor at North Dakota State University suggests that people who nostalgize frequently have a healthier sense of continuity. In experiments where the researchers attempted to induce nostalgic feelings by playing music from subjects’ pasts, those being tested reported feeling “loved” and that “life is worth living.”
“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”
Sedikides has devised strategies to enhance his own nostalgizing. Turning the backward-looking process on its head, he says that he doesn’t “miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories. We call this anticipatory nostalgia.” He also has created a “nostalgic repository,” from which he “withdraws” anytime he’s feeling down or unmotivated. “If you’re not neurotic or ‘avoidant,’” he says, “I think you’ll benefit by nostalgizing two or maybe three times a week.”
(MORE: Time to Rethink Sentimentality's Value)
How Boomers ‘Do’ Nostalgia
I'm not a psychologist or an academic researcher, but I’m no stranger to nostalgia. (I, who still has every card, letter and email my son ever sent me.) And I was curious how some of my boomer peers feel about the subject, so I conducted my own little non-controlled study, asking people how they felt about nostalgia and their preferred “methodologies.”
“Nostalgia is the whiff of a past that can only be recalled, never returned to, so bittersweet,” said one.
Another commented that her “favorite forms of ‘doing’ nostalgia are through photos and music, but old letters work pretty well, too. Sometimes when I need a good cry, or I'm trying to get 'back' to a place or situation in time in order to better understand it or to let go of it more fully, I will purposefully look through old photos. When my son went to college, for instance, I couldn't get enough of his baby pix.”
A few guys told me they almost never “indulge” in reflecting on the past, finding no value in it. Yet I was surprised at how frequently certain other people “go there.” One wrote: “Nostalgia for me is thinking … And I do it every day for a few minutes. Most times I feel happier, but often a little wistful.”
Said a grandmother with close family ties, “I usually do nostalgia when I'm sharing it with a younger relative or friend. I never think of it as better or worse. It just is. And what I like about nostalgia is passing the history forward.”
One tech-savvy friend (who claims not to be big on nostalgia herself) informed me, “There's a whole Twitter chat every Sunday night at 10 ET called #nostalgiachat. They talk about different things every week, from summer camp to favorite toys to old tech.”
A writer who loves history asked "if it’s possible to be nostalgic about things that happened before you were born?” He notes that he favors “books set in eras I've lived (e.g., the dawn of punk/new wave in NYC), music of course, museum exhibits, travel books about places I visited, memorabilia, an old watch or baseball cap, revisiting old favorite restaurants or ones that mimic the style of a former era.” He says his nostalgia is usually “prompted by happenstance. But when I deliberately seek it out, it properly serves as the mental equivalent of comfort food, soothing in times of stress or a relief from frantic current life, and it usually makes me better.”
A number of people supported the researchers’ contentions that nostalgia has a positive effect on how they feel about themselves. One wrote, “When I decide I'm going to wallow in it, I have all sorts of playlists, and I can choose to play one on my iPod and think about things. It's not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today.”
When I asked participants in my survey what happened to them when they were nostalgic, most reported feeling the same things: fortunate, a sense of continuity, old, better by comparison, full, grateful.
Many said it came on spontaneously — most often provoked by music — but for some, very specific smells or places will send them reeling back in time, like Proust’s famous madeleines. Author and Next Avenue contributor Akiko Busch wrote, “It usually has to do with a time of year, like now — long July afternoons and evenings that make me think of growing up, and in turn, of my parents, who are both long gone. But while thinking of them brings a certain sadness, remembering them also brings a kind of fullness to my life.”
Self-reflective in a different way, another woman said, “When I'm really, really nostalgic, I reread old boyfriends' letters and cards. I've only saved the ones that appear, to my nearsighted eyes, to have been written in the throes of crushes, or at least the first blush of romantic feelings. It makes me feel good that I had good taste in men — they were literate, and some of them adored me. But I try not to do this more than once every five years.”
And finally, Robyn Lawrence, another Next Avenue writer, not only commented on nostalgia, but shared the image that accompanies this piece: a wall in her bedroom. “I look at it every day and am always adding to it,” she says. “It represents nostalgia, but it isn’t stagnant. It also represents hope and new adventures.”