Yearning for the past has long been thought to signify an unwillingness or inability to move forward. Nostalgia would seem to be a misfit in contemporary culture focused on progress toward an ever more promising future. Research suggests that a predominant orientation toward the past is relatively rare in the United States. In 1839, Longfellow advised not to look mournfully into the past but to “go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear.” In 1992, a more contemporary sentiment was expressed by Carolyn G. Heilbrun: “Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion, both because it is powerless to act in the real world, and because it glides so easily into hatred and resentment against those who have taken our Eden from us.”
One’s perspective on time and its passing can influence how one approaches life in the present and the future. Research suggests that focusing on a traumatic experience in the past can encourage misunderstanding or misinterpretation of present circumstances and interfere with healthy growth (Holman & Silver, 1998). For those with a prior history of chronic trauma, becoming “trapped in the past” has been shown to correlate with temporal disintegration, confusions or distortions in perceptions of time. A predominant focus of attention on the future, on the other hand, can encourage a person to seek and take advantage of opportunities for a better future.
In contrast, ancient maxims, such as: “He lives two lives who relives his past with pleasure,” (Martialis) suggest that nostalgic reminiscence can enhance the quality of life. Cicero observed that the special harvest of old age is “its abundant recollection of blessings acquired in earlier years.” It might seem paradoxical that contemporary research suggests that looking back can help people enjoy the present and have hope for the future. Only by acknowledging the past can a person gain insight from the changes that have occurred with the irreversible passage of time. Reflecting on the past contributes to an appreciation of the transience of things. As famously observed by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in every crisis the greatest consolation can be derived from the transitoriness of all things revealed in the realization that “this, too, will pass away.”
Considering the past can also sharpen a person’s sense of what has remained stable despite all that has changed. By motivating the rehearsal of past experiences, nostalgia can promote the sense of ownership of thoughts, actions and feelings across time and change. Reminiscence sustains a sense of identity by helping a person feel connected to old parts of the self. During difficult times, remembering who we were in better times can be comforting and can restore the strength needed to tackle the present challenges. The influence of the past depends not only on how happy or unhappy it was, but also on how the memories are processed. A preoccupation with negative aspects of the past or with interpreting past events in an unfavorable way can lead to counterproductive bitterness, anxiety or depression. Focusing on pleasant memories or searching for meaning or lessons learned from adverse experiences can yield psychological benefits such as enhanced personal resilience. Considering how obstacles were overcome or adversity survived can restore a person’s resolve and self-esteem. Remembering how relatives, friends, and respected others inspired or supported us encourages us to continue to seek and give support.
In good times as well as bad, being aware of the transience of events can encourage us to appreciate and make best use of each moment, each opportunity, and each person we interact with. As St. Marianne Cope advised, “Let us make best use of the fleeting moments. They will not return.” Living in the moment doesn’t mean to exclude consideration of the past and the future. Each moment of experience is imbued with meaning accumulated over a lifetime; anticipating the future gives a moment purpose and can direct how the moment ought to be used.
Reflecting on the irreversibility of time can motivate us to avoid future regrets for what we had resented or left undone in the present. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed by the worries and hassles of our busy lives and to lose perspective on the value of what really counts. As country singer Trace Adkins reminds us: “You may not know it now, but you’re gonna miss this.” The inexorable passage of time will not allow a do-over. Knowing that we don’t want to look back someday wishing we had spent more time with those we loved or with those who needed us can enrich our interactions with them now. Like Jim Croce, we all wish we could save time in a bottle or make days with our loved ones last forever. Knowing that we can’t encourages us to make the most of our fleeting moments. While we can’t save time in a bottle, we can keep memories of a life well lived, and facets of those we have loved endure as part of who we are.