What Is Nostalgia
We’ve all felt it – that sense of longing for something far way or long ago or for former happy circumstances. It could be for a childhood toy, the warm embrace of a parent, perhaps your first jalopy or the tree house where you read comic books, now long since torn down.
It could be triggered by a song, a voice, a dog-eared photo, the taste of long-forgotten brandy snaps or god-forbid, vegemite, that you’ve been denied for years because you’ve moved to the US where vegemite is not freely available.
Whatever it is and however you got there, we all know how powerful and all engrossing that wave of nostalgia is.
What is nostalgia? Is it healthy to dwell on the past? We’re always told to focus on the here and now because living in the past, comparing how things used to be, could be the root cause of depressive illness. Or so they believed for the last few centuries of history.
Research is now showing that although to connect with your past can be bitter-sweet, it doesn’t typically make you feel unhappy. It actually makes you feel good about yourself.
Furthermore, it is a driver of empathy and social connectedness, a strong inner antidote for loneliness and alienation.
Connect With Your Past
This site is chock-full of beautiful things that cause us to wax nostalgic. I’ve collected as many items as I can think of that stir reflections of joy within me. But of course, when we connect with the past, we all have our own unique experiences to pull from.
Some of my posts have affiliate links to where you can shop for something nostalgic either for yourself or as a thoughtful gift idea for someone special in your life.
A New Understanding
When Dr. Sedikides moved from his home in North Carolina to the University of Southampton in England, he often found himself struck by severe bouts of nostalgia – the memory of faraway friends, fried okra, Tar Heel basketball games, the autumnal scents of Chapel hill.
He was meditating on all the things he had left behind. The things that reminded him of home.
Sharing his feelings with a colleague over lunch, his colleague decided he must be depressed with his current state of being.
Why else would his mind be fixated on the past? Nostalgia had, after all, been considered a disorder since the 17th Century.
But when Sedikides revisited the past in his mind, he wasn’t actually unhappy and he didn’t want to return home. He explains,
“Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”
That lunch in 1999 inspired him to pioneer a field of study that today includes tens of researchers around the world.
One such researcher, Dr. Clay Routledge, associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, describes the benefits of nostalgia as follows,
“Nostalgia increases feelings of social connectedness to others. It makes people feel loved and valued and increases perceptions of social support when people are lonely.
When we experience nostalgia, we tend to feel happier, have higher self-esteem, feel closer to loved ones and that life has more meaning. And on a physical level, we actually feel warmer.”
A Simpler Time
Nostalgia is associated with a yearning for the past, its personalities, possibilities, and events, especially the ‘good old days’ or a ‘warm childhood’.
A Literary Interpretation
Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience – always momentary, always fragile – of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafes that are now hot-yoga studios.
It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down.
In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
– Michael Chabon (Pulizer Prize Winning Author)