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Why Nostalgia is Good for You

Listening to music from your youth can offer an emotional boost

By Erica Manfred

As a hospice patient I'm entitled to music therapy. Since I'm more of an audiobooks fan and don't listen to music a whole lot, I couldn't understand how it would help. My nurse, Nicolle, explained that since the therapist had a beautiful voice and would chat with me as well, I might enjoy it. Since I'm alone most of the time and welcome visitors unless they're selling something, I accepted.  

Two sisters laughing together in a car. Next Avenue
Kate and Anna McGarrigle  |  Credit: Nonesuch Records

My therapist, I'll call her Tiffany, was a sweet, chirpy 24-year-old with a lovely voice who wanted to sing James Taylor on her guitar for me, probably because she figured he was popular with boomers. I like James Taylor, but in these days of streaming music, would rather hear James himself sing to me.  

She asked me what music I liked and told her folk music. I started listing my favorite folk musicians from the sixties but she'd never heard of any of them. To be fair, my favorites aren't well-known folkies like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary, but long forgotten singer-songwriters — Phil Ochs, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jon Stewart, Dave Van Ronk.   

My version of music therapy was talking about the music that used to move me the most...Most of it was very sad and made me want to cry.

So instead of listening to her sing, I wound up playing my favorites on YouTube for her, which allowed me to reminisce to her about the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the 1960s where some of my most thrilling memories were seeing these acts, plus others.

My version of music therapy was talking about the music that used to move me the most. She appreciated the education. Much of it was very sad and made me want to cry. I waited until she left and listened by myself, tearing up during When I'm Gone by Phil Ochs and Heart Like a Wheel by Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

I wasn't alone in my nostalgia. I saw many comments on their YouTube videos from older people like me who remembered this music and were still deeply moved by it. One comment about Phil Ochs was typical: "'I'm 81 and I'll always miss him. I'm so thankful for his music."

The Function of Nostalgia

Once upon a time nostalgia was so stigmatized that it was considered potentially fatal. Originally described as a "neurological disease of essentially demonic cause" by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688, for centuries it was considered "a debilitating and potentially fatal medical condition expressing "extreme homesickness," according to neuroscience expert, Dr. Melissa Hughes,

"It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives."

We may no longer consider nostalgia the work of the devil, but some people do tend to dismiss it as merely sentimental or a waste of time that encourages living in the past, not the present. Recent research however shows exactly the opposite. 

"Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function," says leading expert in existential psychology, Dr. Clay Routledge. "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." 

This entertaining animated TED talk by Routledge explains how the medical and psychological view of nostalgia has changed throughout history. 


"Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity," says Dr. Constantine Sudekis, the founder of the nostalgia scale. "It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward. In fact, people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity if they nostalgize more frequently."

"Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity."

A quick way to induce nostalgia is through music. In an experiment in the Netherlands, researchers at  Tilburg University "found that listening to songs made people feel not only nostalgic but also warmer physically. That mind-body link means that nostalgia might have had evolutionary value to our ancestors long before Odysseus. "If you can recruit a memory to maintain physiological comfort, at least subjectively, that could be an amazing and complex adaptation, it could contribute to survival by making you look for food and shelter that much longer," according to the research.

Benefits to People With Dementia

Dementia patients who have lost the ability to communicate can often still relate to and appreciate music. It reaches us on a deeper level, bypassing the cognitive parts of our brain and triggering an emotional response.

"Our sensory experiences as human beings are connected with our memories. For people with dementia or other cognitive impairments, often those associations remain even if other elements of their memory are impaired and impacted. You could play a piece of music that holds meaning to them — and that memory is going to be triggered," says Scott Horowitz, clinical assistant professor at Drexel University.

Listening to "Tumbalalaika" today brings back vivid memories of the happy times I had with my dad who was otherwise a rather remote, taciturn parent.

Music therapist Dr. Bethany Cook shares how music therapy benefits people with dementia and their loved ones: "The best music to use are songs that the person with dementia used to listen to and love when they were [ages] 7ish to mid-20s. We are nostalgic for the music of our youth. These foundational memories and songs are locked together in deeper vaults down windy mountain roads that dementia doesn't seem to be able to fully crush. I've seen a person not recognize their spouse of 65 years but when I play their wedding song, this individual turns to their spouse and they recognize them and dance."

Memories of My Dad

My dad used to play Russian and Yiddish songs on his guitar and I would sing along. Listening to "Tumbalalaika" today brings back vivid memories of the happy times I had with my dad who was otherwise a rather remote, taciturn parent. This rendition is sung by an idol of his — Pete Seeger.

I tend to forget my dad was such a wonderful musician and taught me all the songs he loved. That kind of nostalgia reminds me that the childhood I often remember as lonely and bleak actually had some lovely moments — and singing "Tumbalalaika" with my dad was one of them.

Many thanks to modern technology, and especially YouTube, for providing the ability to relive these moments. Why not think of your favorite songs from your youth and look them up on YouTube? It will be eye-opening.

Erica Manfred is a freelance writer and the author of "He’s History, You’re Not; Surviving Divorce After 40." Read More
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