Nostalgia has become increasingly common in our current climate of accelerated, unexpected change. More and more Americans are turning back with longing to what feels like simpler, sweeter times. You need look no further than the voluminous postings on Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday on Twitter. Boomers and Gen Xers alike seem particularly fascinated by the 1980s, recalling their youth or early adulthood in the years before the life-altering arrival of personal computers and the internet. They collect cassette tapes, vinyl LPs, Polaroid cameras, manual typewriters, even decades-old video games which they play on primitive consoles.
Is it a mistake to get too mired in the past? Some psychologists warn that too much devotion to the so-called good old days is an escape from reality; it can indicate loneliness or that a person is having a difficult time coping in the present. Writing about what she calls the “nostalgia trap” in The Way We Never Were, psychologist Stephanie Coontz argues that “nostalgia for a largely mythical traditional family” distracts us from addressing the problems of modern life and can contribute to insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
But new studies suggest that a modest dose of nostalgia is not only harmless, but actually beneficial. An entire field of research in Nostalgia Studies is being developed at the University of Southampton, the University of Surrey, and Le Moyne College. Among their findings, experts in this new field are telling us that nostalgia helps strengthen our sense of identity and makes us feel more optimistic and inspired.
“Nostalgia is one of our most potent methods of creating the self, something like the greatest-hits collection of who we think we are and what we want to be.”
“It’s never really about the past,” says David Berry, author of the recently published On Nostalgia. He points out that the act of reminiscing takes place in the present and is often a reaction to contemporary events or moods. He sees nostalgia as a tool for self-discovery: “By understanding the events and people nostalgia recalls to us, we can better understand who we are.”
“Happy memories let you take a break from negativity,” says Tim Wildeschut, Ph.D., professor of social and personal psychology at the University of Southampton. “Memories are a psychological immune response that is trigged when you experience little bumps in the road.”
Interestingly, those happy memories can be particularly beneficial both to kids in their teens and to society’s elders, says Berry. “These are people going through a transition in life who want to know who they are and what they’re doing here. … Nostalgia is one of our most potent methods of creating the self, something like the greatest-hits collection of who we think we are and what we want to be.”
Recalling our childhood reminds us of “the times when we were accepted and loved unconditionally,” says Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Le Moyne College. “That is such a powerfully comforting phenomenon, knowing that there was a time in life when we didn’t have to earn our love.”
And let’s not forget that nostalgia has been a source of inspiration to innumerable American writers. Mark Twain sentimentally recalled his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri, writing, “after all these years I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer’s morning.”
James Agee opens his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family with a tribute to his long-ago summer evenings, when people would “sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street.”
Late in life, Louisa May Alcott recalled a childhood moment in which she was running over the hills at dawn on a summer morning and “saw, through an arch of trees, the sun rise over river, hill, and wide green meadows as I never saw it before. Something born of the lovely hour … seemed to bring me very near to God.”
Nostalgia can transform even the most ordinary past into legend. Moments of accomplishment and joy — first kisses, graduations, weddings, childbirths — seem almost premade for reminiscing. But just as often our hearts can be stirred by recalling when we were touched by a quiet word of encouragement or unexpected praise, or by an ordinary moment with family and friends.
“By understanding the events and people nostalgia recalls to us, we can better understand who we are.”
Nostalgia also helps us cope with boredom — a particular problem for those of us trapped at home during the COVID months — which can lead to the depressing feeling that life is meaningless. According to psychologist Constantine Sedikides, Ph.D., of the University of Southampton, reminiscing about past moments of happiness can provide a buffer against despair and offer hope and inspiration. It increases our desire to pursue important goals, and our confidence that we can achieve them.
Nostalgia not only warms the heart, it might also warm the body. Researchers have discovered that people in cold rooms are more likely to indulge in nostalgia because reminiscing actually raises body temperature. And, according to The New York Times, Chinese researchers at Sun Yat-Sen University “by tracking students over the course of a month … found that feelings of nostalgia were more common on cold days. The researchers also found that people in a cool room (68 degrees Fahrenheit) were more likely to nostalgize than people in warmer rooms.”
So go ahead, daydream a little about your best childhood friend, your first car, a long-gone family pet. As Dr. Sedikides says, “nostalgia is absolutely central to human experience.” But at the same time, keep these words of wisdom from the great inventor Charles Kettering in mind as well: “You can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time.”
Jeff Nilsson, director of Post archives, wrote about Prohibition (“When American Went Dry 100 Years Ago”) in the July/August 2020 issue.
This article is featured in the January/February 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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