- Using our memory of better times is actually a tool that can support our sense of self-esteem and overall mental outlook.
- Anticipatory nostalgia can ground us in the present as well as connect us to the future.
- Relishing past events and moments of contentment is beneficial so long as you don't use the past to escape from the present.
When everything in life seems to be moving faster and getting scarier than the day before, it can be helpful to reach back in your memory for a moment where everything in life seemed calm and secure.
Using our memory of better times is actually a tool that can support our sense of self-esteem and overall mental outlook and balance. When we think of prior moments in life, we are engaging with nostalgia, which can be described as an emotionally rich appreciation for a prior time, event, or relationship that holds positive and happy associations. When you think of being cared for by a loving parent or caretaker, you might feel that same sense of safety and warmth you felt all those years ago, right now, in the moment. When you recall those positive relationships and spaces of contentment or joy, you might feel a physical warmth in your heart that spreads throughout your body, and you might even realize that you’re smiling now as you recall that time.
This sense of connection to the past can give you an inner boost that will allow you to better handle the challenges or sense of alone-ness that you feel today. We feel more resilient when we feel secure and connected to others.
Nostalgia Is a Superpower Anyone Can Master
Nostalgia has the "superpower" of helping us feel better about the "now" by connecting us to positive feelings from the "then." Nostalgia can help us feel better about ourselves and more in control of current situations if we're able to channel that positivity into concrete actions or a reframed mindset about the present. Allowing yourself to nostalgically recall past events will increase your sense of meaning in life, as well.
While it can be bittersweet to remember past periods of happiness and success, especially when faced with loneliness or failure, research shows that these memories are transformative—we feel more able to face stressful situations when we have positive memories to support and sustain us. Routledge et al. (2013), highlighted the ways in which nostalgia can be used as a shield against compromised mental health, and how using nostalgia as a tool supports adaptive psychological functioning.
The brain is a powerful organ, and it strongly supports our use of positive memories as a means to enhance our sense of meaning, feelings of social connection, and sense of self-esteem. Taken together, these build confidence in our ability to manage current conditions.
Making Moments Count: Anticipatory Nostalgia
Have you ever been in the midst of a joy-filled or especially heartwarming event and thought to yourself, “This moment is going to become a memory I treasure in the future”? If so, you are practicing anticipatory nostalgia (Cheung et al., 2019). We might call these "Zen moments" or "magic moments" and it appears that there are benefits to being able to let yourself stop and acknowledge the magic of these events.
When we experience anticipatory nostalgia, we are deepening the savoring of the event, which can leave us feeling even more appreciative of the connections we have to the people and places that are part of the event. This reflects the importance of actually staying “in the moment” and being present in our lives. While anticipatory nostalgia may be a future-focused feeling, it happens in the moment and connects us more securely to the present.
The Dangers of Succumbing to Memories of the Past
However, when we begin "living in the past," we may be inviting into our lives less than optimal mental wellness and potentially compromised physical wellbeing, too. When we succumb to memories of how things "used to be" and refuse to address the "what is," we may find ourselves overwhelmed by our current conditions and less able to manage current challenges.
Memories of home and the people who surround us are often the type of nostalgia that keeps us able to deal with significantly concerning or dangerous conditions. For instance, letters from home can be a lifeline for those who are engaged in warfare far away from what they consider "home." It's when we become stuck in our memories of people who have died, places or times in our lives when things were "easier" or "better" that invites in the negative effects of nostalgia. When we are unable to make decisions about a current challenge or get stuck in memories of better times from the past, we can sink into a state in which we "tune out" of the present and ignore very real threats or opportunities in the now.
The key is to let the power of the past prepare us to handle the present.
Cheung, W., Hepper, E. G., Reid, C. A., Green, J. D., Wildschut, T., & Sedikides, C. (2019). Anticipated nostalgia: Looking forward to looking back. Cognition and Emotion, 34, 511-525.
Routledge, C., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C. and Juhl, J. (2013), Nostalgia as a Resource for Psychological Health and Well-Being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7: 808-818. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12070