By Marina Krakovsky, published on May 1, 2006 - last reviewed on December 28, 2011
For Proust it was a bite of a buttery madeleine; for some, it's the taste of a gooey Mallomar. And for you, it might be a few notes of "Yellow Submarine" or the sight of a little girl stacking Legos that catapults your mind decades into the past. Under the right conditions, the tiniest trigger can unleash a flood of sunny memories in even the least sentimental among us.
Such reminiscence can be healthier than you think. Despite nostalgia's bittersweet rap and the oft-heard advice to live in the moment, studies suggest that the occasional detour down memory lane can give your spirits a significant lift.
Thinking of good memories for just 20 minutes a day can make people more cheerful than they were the week before, and happier than if they think of their current lives, report researchers from Loyola University.
Most people spontaneously reminisce when they're alone or feeling down—or both—which suggests that we reach for pleasant memories as an antidote to feeling blue, says Loyola psychologist Fred Bryant. Think of a new arrival to a big city who remembers good times with friends back home. Or a premed struggling with college chemistry who bolsters his confidence with memories of high school triumph. "Reminiscence can motivate you," says Bryant. More important, it can give you "a sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose—instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life."
Researchers at the University of Southampton in the U.K. have also found nostalgia to be a potent mood booster. Since memories often star important people in our lives, they may give us a comforting sense of belonging. According to studies by psychologist Tim Wildschut and colleagues, people who write about a nostalgic event are more cheerful after the exercise compared with people who write about an everyday experience. The studies also show that people who write about good memories report higher self-esteem and feel more positively about friendships and close relationships.
Wildschut adds that people who are disposed to experience nostalgia also tend to see their past as positive, adding support to the idea of a nostalgia-prone personality. Previous research has shown that naturally nostalgic people have high self-esteem and are less prone to depression. They cope with problems more effectively and are more likely than not to receive social support after experiencing stress. Not surprisingly, these well-rooted folks also see their families more often.
But even people who aren't particularly nostalgic can enjoy the benefits of recalling the good old days. For best results, research suggests reminiscing in your head rather than on paper. When Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside asked participants to either write or think about their happiest life experience, she found that those who replayed their happiest moments in their heads later experienced greater well-being than the writing group. Interestingly, a large body of research, including Lyubomirsky's, shows that just the opposite happens when people process unpleasant life events: Ruminating about them retraumatizes you, whereas analyzing them through writing helps you get past the trauma.
But this dichotomy makes sense, since "you don't want to get past a positive experience," explains Lyubomirsky. On the contrary, she says, "There's a magic and mystery in positive events," so analyzing them lifts the veil and makes wondrous events more ordinary.
For some people, reminiscing about good times can trigger painful emotions. Recalling a career triumph can make you feel like a has-been, and thinking back to cozy weekends with grandma might be a poignant reminder that she's gone.
But it needn't be that way. "It's what you focus on," says Lyubomirsky. "Do you focus on how positive it was then, or that it's over now?" People who see each good experience as permanently enriching are more likely to get a mood boost. But a person who mainly focuses on the contrast between past and present damns every good experience with the attitude that nothing in the future can ever live up to it.
To avoid dwelling on this contrast, Bryant recommends connecting the past with the present. As you think about your current job or family, for example, recalling your younger self who once dreamt of this future can enhance your outlook on the life you have now. "Recalled anticipation spices the moment," he says.
Certainly, you can overdo reminiscence—"when there's no joy in the moment except by resurrecting the past," says Bryant. He suggests a better approach to the passage of time: using positive reminiscence as part of a cycle that also includes savoring the present and looking forward to the future.—Marina Krakovsky
You don't have to wait for nostalgia to strike. These steps can help make it a regular part of your life.
Jog your memory with these bits from popular culture's past.
1940s Humphrey Bogart, swingdancing, The Shadow, fedoras, Judy Garland
1950s Sputnik, Pez, beatniks, Bettie Page, Elvis' hips, Tupperware
1960s Bewitched, Quisp cereal, the twist, miniskirts, the Magical Mystery Tour
1970s Farrah Fawcett, The Brady Bunch, disco, flared jeans, pet rocks
1980s Moon boots, punk, The Blue Lagoon, Donkey Kong, Reese's Pieces, disco, The Dukes of Hazzard
1990s The Rachel haircut, Monica Lewinsky, grunge music, 90210