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How Nostalgia Can Boost Your Mood

We often turn to memories in times of stress, and it helps, a researcher says


Baking with your beloved grandmother in her cozy, fragrant kitchen. Winning a big game with that gang of teammates whom you clicked with so perfectly. Cuddling and comforting your child after a bad dream. The first kiss from that person who became your true love.

We all reflect on cherished memories from the past. It turns out that doing so is good for us.

Clay Routledge, an author and professor at the North Dakota State University in Fargo, is the nation’s premier academic researcher on nostalgia, authoring more than 90 scholarly papers on the subject.

We asked him how individuals can harness the power of their memories to improve their quality of life:

Next Avenue: Are nostalgic memories always purely happy ones?

Credit: Jenny Routledge
Clay Routledge

Clay Routledge: Nostalgic memories have a bittersweet component. They are predominantly positive, but with a layer of complexity; they have an element of longing. These memories recognize the people or the times that are gone.

That emotional pull, that thread of loss, is followed by a feeling of appreciation: ‘I’m so glad I have these memories; I wouldn’t trade them for anything.’

What’s the value of reviewing these memories?

These memories appear to be a pretty important psychological resource. Many people naturally turn to them in times of stress. They remind us that we’ve been loved and supported in the past, and that gives us optimism we will feel that way again.

When someone is going through a hard time, they might reflect on a loss — they used to spend summers with their Grandpa and they regret they took him for granted, but are so thankful for that time with him. There’s a little pain, a lot of joy and meaning, a back and forth.

Did you expect to find so many positives associated with thinking about the past?

My research shows that nostalgic memories are actually motivational, they can inspire action. That surprised me.

We had thought that people look into the past because they’re not satisfied with the present. But one of our new studies shows that nostalgia is more energizing than previously thought. Recruiting nostalgic memories gives us a sense of social competence, keeps negative feelings at bay and sustains us in an important way.

How can we tap into these memories?

Nostalgic memories are those that we segregate as being personally meaningful. They don’t have to be the epic events of a lifetime… [or] about pleasure or happiness; a meaningful memory can be a story about a struggle or overcoming something that was difficult.

Music, the taste of a particular food item, the holidays, photographs, any sensory trigger can bring us these memories.

Do we unconsciously turn to these memories?

All the time.

We hear a song that takes us back in time, or we access social media or photo sharing platforms to connect with old friends.

You may love cooking or gardening or working on your car and may not realize that it connects you with an activity you did as a child with a family member you loved.

That continuity is one of the functions of nostalgia; it’s a social glue that grounds us. It keeps you connected to themes and priorities that surrounded you when you were growing up.

Is there an age when people become more nostalgic?

We have this idea that young people are not sentimental, but that’s not true.

Young adults tend to be highly nostalgic. We theorize that this happens as they’re in the midst of a big life upheaval — they’re moving away from home, they miss their old friends and Mom’s cooking. They use nostalgia to stabilize themselves during a period of adjustment.

Nostalgic feelings decline as people start careers and families; they settle down and are busy.

We see the next spike as people get older and life starts to change again — kids leave the nest, they’re approaching retirement.

Everyone’s life is different, but when we look at the broad picture we speculate that transitions trigger an increase in feelings of nostalgia. We also see that when people experience disruptive events, like divorce or the death of loved ones, they become more nostalgic.

At times of your life when you’re dealing with uncertainty, you’re attracted to these memories as a source of comfort.

Do you think the next generation will be nostalgic about memories they’re making now?

We know that physical things are a source of nostalgia and meaning and see that many of today’s young adults don’t care about family heirlooms. What we don’t know is whether this will change as they age.

In the pre-internet age, objects were handed down. Young adults who have their music, photographs, movies and books in files in the Cloud will have fewer tangible things to get sentimental about. We’re going through a cultural change from physical connections to the digital sphere.

Do marketers use these memories to sell us products?

Nostalgia is about immortality. It resurrects and preserves that which you don’t want to lose. That reminder that life is transitory can be a powerful driver of consumer behavior.

In addition to our idiosyncratic personal memories, we have cultural memories — collectively shared experiences — and marketers exploit that. This cuts across a range of consumer products and is why we see them bring back the cereal boxes, toys, movies and fashions of our youth.

They design or rebrand products to tap into that feeling of nostalgia. Look at the new design for McDonalds; it’s a slicker, more modern version of their retro design.

But nostalgia is tricky. If a company gets it wrong and fans feel like they’ve violated something sacred, there can be a real backlash.

What are you nostalgic about?

I loved grunge in my teenage years, so listening to Nirvana or Pearl Jam reminds me of that time. I like playing retro video and arcade games, Nintendo and Atari, from the 1980s. My children are now 16 and 18 and I’m nostalgic about when they were little.

When my dad died a few years ago, our family got together and shared stories that I had forgotten or that I don’t regularly think about. In fact, today is my dad’s birthday and I’ll be calling my mom. We’ll talk about those memories that can’t be replaced. We’ve experienced a loss, but the memory holds our joy and our sorrow.

Nostalgia is part of that natural human endeavor to keep things we care about alive in our minds. It’s really kind of magic.

By Kevyn Burger
Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and radio producer. Her background is in broadcasting. Kevyn worked as a television reporter and investigative journalist and a radio talk show host. A Minneapolis resident, Kevyn is the mother of three and a breast cancer survivor.

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