Believe In Yesterday

Backward-looking experiences can arm us for the future.

By Matt Huston, published May 7, 2016 - last reviewed on July 5, 2016

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Feeling bored? Lonely? Uninspired? Try thinking of your favorite song from high school, a long-ago trip to the beach, or a childhood birthday. Contra the bad rap nostalgia gets, psychologists are building a case that meditating on episodes from the past is, for many, a mind-opening remedy for everyday malaise.

Even confined to one person's mind, nostalgia is typically social in nature. Induced in experiments (often via a writing exercise or song lyrics), it has been shown to foster feelings of connection to other people. "You revisit old relationships, bring people closer, and for a moment, it's as if they're there with you," says Tim Wildschut, a psychologist at the University of Southampton. 

The resulting impression of social support can lead to other positive feelings. It can deepen your appreciation of the threads connecting who you were and who you are—also called self-continuity—which, in experiments, has boosted ratings of energy and vitality. "Nostalgia seems to stabilize people, to be a source of comfort and reassurance," says North Dakota State University psychologist Clay Routledge. It has also been found to increase self-esteem and to make people who frequently engage in it more optimistic.

If late nights with friends or after-school rehearsals once lifted you out of the everyday, remembering them could renew the effect. Research participants who revisit nostalgic memories have claimed higher levels of inspiration and motivation to tackle goals than those who think of ordinary memories. They have also exhibited a sharper creative edge, as judged by performance on writing challenges.

Memory can inspire us in our social lives, too. Routledge and colleagues found that nostalgia can enhance confidence in one's social ability. For people with a positive relationship history, he says, nostalgia can leverage it to help strengthen present ties. Should we run into a stumbling block, such as a serious argument, reflecting on times when things went smoothly can assure us that we'll be able to get past it. 

When comparing past and present, chronic worriers and others may get stuck on negative aspects of their current lives. But researchers suggest that by focusing on memories that cast the present in a positive light—including those that relate to valuable, enduring features of our lives—most can benefit from a look back.