What is nostalgia?
The word Nostalgia has two meanings. Originally the word meant ‘a yearning for home’ and was used in relation to soldiers who had been drafted for some time. In more recent years, the word nostalgia has come to mean ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’.
Nostalgia is an emotional wish to go back to a happier time.
What causes nostalgia?
Nostalgia reminds us of a time or event in the past that is either happy or neutral in nature, so the feeling of nostalgia is triggered in us when we re-experience things from our past such as Familiar music, smells, old movies, childhood toys or places we used to spend time in. Nostalgia is even sewn into old photographs, certain meals and stories we share. We can even build and recall nostalgic feelings ourselves, but more on that later.
What are the effects of nostalgia?
The effects of nostalgia are closely linked to the question ‘Why do we feel nostalgia?’ Nostalgia helps us in several motivating areas of the human experience. Below are some of the main reasons why nostalgia is good for us.
Nostalgia feels good
Feelings of nostalgia are born in the reward centres of the brain, which are stimulated by extra blood flow during nostalgic experiences. This leads to the experience of pleasant emotions. The neural pathways are reinforced when we re-experience something and we are rewarded with a chemical pat on the back. We humans absolutely love the feeling of endorphins that cause pleasant feelings and these hormones are key motivators in our survival, from pushing forward our evolution to making sure we eat and survive.
The release of endorphins has helped us remember where we have been and what we have done and the net result of this is ‘nostalgia’.
Nostalgia is an emotional retreat
When we experience nostalgia, it can make us feel better about ourselves, according to a study led by Constantine Sedikides, a psychologist at the University of Southampton in England. Happy moments from our past can make us feel more connected to our sense of stability about who we are.
Nostalgia increases resilience and positivity
Lots of studies have discussed the effects of nostalgia and a logical reason for this might be because of the profound effect it can have on us. This group of sudies suggests that nostalgia can reach us and spur us on towards our future, affecting our sense of authenticity, even to the point that the effects of nostalgia are increased if our sense of expression is ‘blocked’ (see Study 5 in the link)
Nostalgia socially reconnects us
The same study from Southampton also found that “nostalgia boosted self-continuity by increasing a sense of social connectedness”, which means that our sense of who we are partly comes from who we are associated with and who in our family came before us – nostalgia adds to our identity and personality.
Nostalgia helps us cope
“…People who are high in nostalgia cope in healthier ways with difficult situations by expressing their emotions, connecting with other people and being more willing to ask for advice or practical help”, says long time nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho, Professor of Psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
Physiological benefits of nostalgia
In addition to the emotional and mental benefits mentioned above, there are a multitude of other upsides to nostalgic moments such as:
- Mood boosts
- Inspiration and motivation triggered
- Aids problem-solving
- Improves resilience
- Strengthens your sense of meaning in your life
- Improves personal relationships
Nostalgia can save us….
Nostalgia is of benefit in multiple areas of our lives. No wonder we seek it out. When we look at the history of the word, the etymology, we see that there is a hidden third meaning to the word ‘Nostalgia’
Nostalgia comes from words that mean ‘saved’ and the effects of nostalgia can work wonders for us:
- Old Indo-European verbal base “nes” which means “escape danger, return safely”.
- Germanic word “nesan” which means “to be saved, return safely”.
- Old English “nesan, genesan”, meaning “to be saved, survive”.
- Old Saxon ginesan “to be saved, convalesce”.
…But nostalgia can also trap us
Nostalgia and marketing
There are so many health benefits associated with the feeling of Nostalgia, but it can also have its down sides. Call us cynical, but those marketing people will use anything to get us to buy anything and our sense of nostalgia is not different. “Nostalgia is kind of a commodity in that it’s something you can sell,” said Dr Terry Richard, Professor and Nostalgia Expert from the University of Arkansas Little Rock. “Sometimes contemporary appeals to something new just won’t work and you have to make it nostalgic.”
This sentiment is highlighted by the toy collector’s market. One of the most recent Transformers Optimus Prime Toys is one of the most revered, for example, because it closely resembles the character of the same name from the 1980s cartoon. The people that watched these cartoons and had these toy as children are now old enough to collect them and the price of this toy is a mere $580 AUD – if you can get one (which you can’t – they’re sold out).
Nostalgia and the future
The benefits of nostalgia are enticing and hard to put to one side. We love to vacate that bad current moment by retreating to moments of nostalgia, but the risk is that we get stuck there: “You don’t want to get stuck in nostalgia – you want to bring the best of the past forward, update it and use it in a helpful way,” said Dr Batcho, Psychologist and Nostalgia analyst. If you’re missing old friends or family, reconnect with them. If you yearn for a place you used to frequent, take a visit.
One way to do this is to notice lessons from the past and weave them into your decision processes.
If you cannot physically reconnect with your past, however, there is still something you can do in your present. The key to maximising the effect of nostalgia is to take it forward with you; to remember the good times and apply them to your present times and the times that are yet to come. Psychologists are calling this idea ‘Anticipated Nostalgia’.
Anticipated nostalgia is the recognition that your present moments will one day be looked back on with nostalgic memory. What better way to make the most of tomorrow’s memories than to live them today.
Take in the moment, go full Zen. You are living tomorrows memories, NOW, and you can savour them for the future.