Juliana Breines Ph.D.

In Love and War

5 Surprising Reasons You Should Look Back on Your Past

4. It can literally make you feel warmer.

Posted May 31, 2016

Darren Baker/Shutterstock
Source: Darren Baker/Shutterstock

The word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain. Historically it has had a negative connotation. It originally referred to the intense feeling of homesickness experienced by those who were separated from friends and family for an extended time, and it was later viewed as a psychiatric condition characterized by a desire to return to an earlier developmental stage.

Although the word has taken on a more positive connotation—it’s now defined more broadly as a “sentimental longing for one’s past” which is common and rarely pathological—it’s still a bittersweet emotion. But recent research suggests that nostalgia tends to be more sweet than bitter, and that there are ways to make it even sweeter.

1. It improves our mood.

Nostalgia is often triggered by negative emotions like loneliness or grief, but most people report that nostalgia itself is a relatively pleasant experience, one that lifts them out of sadness or makes it more bearable. In studies where nostalgia is experimentally induced (e.g., by having people write about a nostalgic event), nostalgic participants report greater feelings of happiness, contentment, and security than those who write about other types of events. They often feel negative emotions too, but the good tends to outweigh the bad.

Nostalgia’s mood-boosting effects can be enhanced if we focus on what we’ve gained rather than what we’ve lost. If we’re missing a beloved grandparent, we might reflect on how grateful we are for the special moments we shared with them; if we’re longing for the “glory days” of our youth, we could savor those memories by planning a reunion with old friends and reminiscing together. While there are inevitably some experiences we’ll never relive and people we may never see again, nostalgia allows us to revive these parts of our past and to recognize how they’ve shaped our present.

2. It makes life feel more meaningful.

Mortality can be an unsettling thought, fueling existential angst and leading people to question the significance of their lives. Research suggests that nostalgia may be a relatively healthy way to cope with these fears, because it imbues life with a greater sense of meaning and value. In one series of studies, participants who underwent a nostalgia induction perceived life as more meaningful and had fewer intrusions of death-related thoughts after a reminder of mortality compared to those in control conditions.

Nostalgia can be especially useful for changing the way we think about hardships from the past. It can help us construct redemption narratives that focus on how we’ve triumphed over adversity, learned something valuable, or made the best of a bad situation. The randomness inherent in many negative events can be especially distressing; nostalgia can help us make sense of them and give them purpose.

3. It connects us with others.

Research suggests that nostalgia-provoking memories are almost always social in nature—the music, smells, and places that most reliably evoke nostalgia are often associated with specific people, such as childhood friends, or experiences of social belonging, such as playing a team sport or attending summer camp. In one study, nostalgic participants felt more loved and protected than control participants, and in another, nostalgia counteracted the effects of loneliness, leading participants to feel a stronger sense of social support.

These findings have led researchers to call nostalgia a psychological resource, rather than a liability, as it was once believed to be. But relational nostalgia can have risks—reflecting wistfully on past romantic relationships, for example, can make it difficult to move on, and can create an unfair basis for comparison for new relationships. Nothing can live up to the excitement of your first love when that moment is viewed through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia. It’s easy to forget that the good old days weren’t always easy, and that the present has plenty worth valuing too.

4. It makes us feel warmer (literally).

Nostalgia appears to be not just psychologically comforting, but also physically comforting. In one series of studies, participants felt warmer after listening to nostalgic music and perceived a higher ambient temperature after writing about a nostalgic event. Nostalgic participants even showed more cold tolerance during a task that involved submerging their hand in ice water. And just as sadness and loneliness can trigger nostalgia, so too can physical coldness: Remarkably, participants felt more nostalgic on colder days and in colder rooms. The researchers argue that nostalgia might serve a homeostatic function, helping to regulate body temperature.

These findings suggest that a cold winter day is a good time to break out old photo albums or watch cheesy home videos—nostalgia seems to quite literally warm our hearts.

5. It makes the future look brighter.

Contrary to the idea that nostalgia can leave us stuck in the past, looking back fondly seems to help us look forward optimistically. Participants exposed to nostalgia inductions have been found to use more optimism-related words and report feeling more optimistic about the future and more positive about themselves. Especially during rough times, reflecting on happier times can remind us that things do have the potential to be good again.

But it’s also important to create new memories and to remember that the present—however bland it may seem in the moment—may someday become a source of nostalgia itself. Research suggests that people tend to underestimate how special a seemingly mundane experience will seem down the road: participants who revisited a time capsule of ordinary experiences found the experience unexpectedly interesting, meaningful, and enjoyable, on par with more extraordinary events. We can create future sources of nostalgia by leaving ourselves small reminders of our lives to rediscover down the road.

One potential pitfall of nostalgia is its tendency to orient us towards the familiar, hindering exploration and growth. The movies and music of our youth may always hold a special place in our hearts, but if they’re all we watch and listen to, we’re less likely to discover new things that we could love just as much, or in a different way. New experiences enrich our present and our future just as much as the old ones do—we just have to be open to them.

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