When looking back helps us move forward, or how nostalgia can be good

If the word “nostalgia” only conjures up the idea of wistful looks back, think again, because the tenderhearted emotion doesn’t have to function as a backward-looking mood, researchers say.

Studies indicate that, in moderation, nostalgia can help move us past our current troubles, whether it be stress from a global pandemic or challenges at home or work. It’s all in how we use it.

“Nostalgia is a first-aid emotion, very useful to have in your emotional toolbox in case you feel lonely or in a low mood,” said Ad Vingerhoets, a clinical psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

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More than a dozen studies in recent years have measured the predominantly “positive,” “restorative power” of nostalgia, showing it to be a “buffer” against emotional unhealthiness and an “important resource for maintaining and promoting psychological health.”

Nostalgia is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,” but experts say its benefits run much deeper.

“Far from keeping people living in the past, nostalgia can be a powerful resource both for coping with difficult times and for propelling us positively into the future,” said Erica Hepper, a lecturer of psychology at the University of Surrey in England and the author of multiple nostalgia-related studies. “Nostalgia is part of the fabric of everyday life.”

At the same time, nostalgia isn’t about positive vibes alone.

“Nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion,” said David Ludden, a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga. “It’s a useful tool for boosting our mood when we’re feeling down. But always thinking about the past while ignoring the present isn’t healthy. To thrive, we need to deal with current challenges.”

Ludden explained that leaning too much into the past could undermine innovation and stunt social progress.

Used for good, however, experts say and studies indicate that nostalgia can promote empathy and psychological resilience, foster creativity, curb loneliness, build deeper connection, and encourage a sense of community and volunteerism. It has also been shown to evoke inspiration. “Nostalgia makes us feel safe, loved and reminds us that others care about us,” Hepper said. One study found that waxing nostalgic can even make one feel physically warmer.

The powerful emotion has also been shown to reduce physical pain and improve one’s mood by releasing endorphins. “Recalling to mind a pleasurable experience from our past triggers the same positive emotions we felt when we actually lived the experience, providing a rush of nostalgic pleasure from the past for us to savor in the present,” offered Hal McDonald, an English professor at Mars Hill University in North Carolina.

Perhaps most noteworthy, nostalgia gives life meaning.

“Because nostalgic memories focus on important, meaningful experiences or relationships, they remind us that we are capable of living a meaningful life, connected to others,” Hepper said.

Nostalgic reverie can also make one more optimistic about current circumstances, or provide an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

“When we ‘revisit’ our personal past, we can recall how we coped with problems and got through adversity,” said Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.

Nostalgia can “remind us that life isn’t always like this, that we have had rewarding and meaningful experiences in the past,” said Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University and the author of “Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource.”

Routledge has spent much of his career studying the effects of nostalgia, which he said can help put our present situation into a broader context, “to see beyond the sadness or pain we feel right now.”

And although research shows that the emotion is pervasive – one study said that over 80% of British undergraduate students reported feeling nostalgic at least once a week – the emotion can be induced more often if desired. “Nostalgia is like a psychological store, which people can dip into when they need a psychological boost or reinforcement,” Hepper said.

Turning to certain media, for instance, has been shown to be a nostalgic experience for many.

“It might seem counterintuitive, but a bit of escapism in nostalgic music, movies and other media can be healthy,” Batcho said. “When we listen to old songs or watch old movies, we benefit from the feelings we had when we originally enjoyed them and from the memories of the people we enjoyed them with in the past.”

Beyond turning to a bygone media, Vingerhoets said visiting a childhood neighborhood or taking a trip down memory lane through photos can help induce the emotion as well. “Nostalgia can be triggered by a variety of other factors, like smells, food and social gatherings with old friends such as a school reunion,” he said.

Of course, relying on nostalgia too often or for long periods of time can turn the first-aid remedies of nostalgia into a crutch and erode the benefits that come from experiencing the emotion more naturally. “Memories that catch us by surprise tend to pack a much more powerful emotional punch than those memories that we retrieve voluntarily,” McDonald said.

Instead, balancing forward-thinking priorities while still learning from the past is the best way to reap the full benefits of this unique and powerful emotion.

“We engage in nostalgic reverie when the current situation isn’t good. Doing so reminds us that things were better in the past. If we stop there, though, nostalgia really doesn’t help,” Ludden said. “But if sweet memories of the past can reassure us that the future can also be brighter than the present, then nostalgia can be a real psychological resource.”

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Daryl Austin is a health and history journalist based in Utah.

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