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What's So Nice about Nostalgia?

Why we love going retro

You may be happier now, objectively, than you ever were in your earlier years. You may even have had a pretty miserable or perhaps lackluster adolescence. Yet, once you've passed the age of 30, all of a sudden the late teens start to acquire a glow that they perhaps didn't really deserve.

The popularity of shows harking back to the 1960s, most notably "Mad Men" (now in its fifth highly-anticipated season), isn't limited to adults of a certain age. Those horn-rimmed eyeglasses, sinewy sheaths, and old-fashioned old-fashioneds are taking hold of today's 20-somethings. Perhaps everyone longs for a time that seems simpler, even though the era was hardly an age of innocence.

However, it's not simply a yearning for the past in a generic sense that drives people to try to relive past decades. A phenomenon called the "reminiscence bump" (Rubin et al., 1998) leads adults of all ages to remember with great clarity and fondness the years of their own youth. Autobiographical memory, your recall of the events of your life, is sharpest for the events spanning roughly the ages of 15 to 30. As you think back on your past, you're most likely to be able to generate strong mental images of what you were doing at that time, perhaps even to the date. It's literally, a "bump" in your ability to remember what happened during these key critical years of life.

Objectively speaking, the teens and 20s are not necessarily the happiest time of life. Researchers showed a number of years ago that the lowest percentage of people rating themselves as "very happy" was lowest among the 18-27 year old age group (Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998). Why, then do so many people think back on these years with such fond memories? It turns out that the reminiscence bump applies particularly to happy memories (Gluck & Bluck, 2007). After the age of 30, when we think back on these times, the painful events become dimmer and dimmer. We shape and re-shape our life stories, reworking the narrative in a way that enhances the way we feel about ourselves now (Whitbourne, 1985). It's adaptive to recall the happy, not the sad, events from our past. However, it's also important to reword some of those sad events. If we only focus on the positive, we'll lose touch with the reality of the events that actually shaped who we are now.

Retro-themed entertainment feeds into our tendency to reflect back on the positive events that shaped our sense of who we are now. They also reinforce our sense of identity. The late teens and early 20s are the time when we first take a serious look at forming our sense of identity. The music, movies, TV shows, books, and clothing of that time become a part of who we are. Ever since the term "Baby Boom generation" became part of pop culture, groups of people born in the same historical era are now identified with their own catch phrases. "Gen X," "Gen Y," "Millenials," and "the Greatest Generation" are now woven into the fabric of the personalities of entire cohorts. The prevailing culture at the time of our youth becomes the mentality that we adopt, at least in part, when we think of who we are.

Emotionally connecting with your younger self helps you maintain a sense of continuity over time. Without memory, we would have no identity. The experiences you've had throughout your life help define who you are at any given moment. People with amnesia retain their personalities, but they lose that vital sense of connection with their own past. The blank spaces in their life stories leave gaps in their sense of personal identity.

Going retro doesn't have to mean going backward in your development. Spending too much time focused on the past can leave you ill-prepared to adapt to current challenges. However, dipping into the past to remind you of how you've coped with previous life stresses can help you strengthen your confidence in dealing with what you're facing now. Playing those golden oldies can serve as a form of comfort food for your soul.

Bring on those Mad Men fashions (but not the smoking or drinking please!). Revel in the revival of the culture of your own younger days. Dip into your own past to refresh your sense of who you are now. However, it's also important to keep your perspective fresh by not getting stuck in the past. Don't assume that our futures will be doomed because the current crop of 20-somethings are inferior to your generation. Staying involved with the young now will help you adapt with the passing of years in your own life.

To sum up, here are 3 pointers for enjoying the past to guide you in the present:

1. Use your past experiences to bolster your identity. Maintaining that connection with your early days can keep you grounded in the present.

2. Stay on top of what's current now. If you're going to age successfully, you need to be vitally involved in today's culture, even if you don't think it's "as good" as yours was.

3. Expand your reminiscence bump. Although most people focus on the positive from their early lives, it's important to balance those memories with others that may be less pleasant.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012


Gluck, J., & Bluck, S. (2007). Looking back across the life span: A life story account of the reminiscence bump. Memory and Cognition, 35, 1928-1939.

Mroczek, D. K., & Kolarz, C. M. (1998). The effect of age on positive and negative affect: A developmental perspective on happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1333-1349.

Rubin, D. C., Rahhal, T. A., & Poon, L. W. (1998). Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best. Memory and Cognition, 26, 3-19.

Whitbourne, S. K. (1985). The life-span construct as a model of adaptation in adulthood. In J. E. Birren & K.W.Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging (2nd ed., pp. 594-618). NewYork, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

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