We’re always encouraged to look to the future, not back to the past. For centuries, indulging in nostalgia has even been regarded as regressive and negative – even as a symptom of significant mental illness. The roots of the word, coined three and a half centuries ago, relate to pain, loss and longing. For some time now, researchers have begun to paint a different picture of the value of nostalgia, with clear evidence that it can actually be good for us. Rather than a symptom of depression or negativity about the here and now, it can improve our sense of emotional and even physical comfort.
It’s been known for some time that musical memories can boost a sense of well-being. Elderly people in a senior citizens home experienced clear benefits from listening to the music of their era, with all the happy associations of youth that trigger positive emotions, even if there is wistfulness for past times attached. Recent studies show that nostalgia has even more wide-ranging positive effects. It can help counter boredom, anxiety and feelings of isolation, for example, and also improves relationships with others.
One of the most astonishing research findings is that the warm glow of memories of the past is quite real. It actually makes people feel warmer. Strangely, temperature seems to have something else to do with nostalgia. It seems that most of us are more likely to be nostalgic about the past when the environment is cool. This suggests to some that it may actually have had some adaptive significance during the evolution of our species.
One of the ways that nostalgia can make us feel better seems to be with what is called ‘discontinuity’. Nostalgic thoughts remind us that we are still the people we once were. Memories seem to remind us of our own self-worth, and can promote an appreciation of life in the present. Experiments where people were given materials about the meaninglessness of life tended to become more nostalgic, apparently to compensate for the negative input.
The old idea that nostalgia was all about looking back to a mythical time in life when everything was better, unlike the terrible present, just doesn’t seem to hold up. We all seem to use nostalgia, though it’s more prevalent among younger adults and older adults than the middle-aged population. It seems likely that nostalgia helps people to cope with change – going to college or starting out as adults among the young and coping with the challenges of later life.
Of course, nostalgia can be bad, and it can include elements of sadness, but there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Psychologists are exploring their findings to see whether deliberate nostalgia sessions can be used as a tool to actively encourage well-being and contentment – which makes nostalgia very much about the future, not just the past.