Nostalgia can be seen as a bit of a mixed bag, as reflected in its definition of a “wistful yearning for the past.” Being wistful isn’t a bad thing, but yearning has a strong connection to sadness. And the past is gone, so does it make sense to revisit it?
It does, according to Clay Routledge, Ph. D., a psychological scientist, consultant, public speaker, professor, and author of the 2015 book Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource. He has concluded that “nostalgizing” (great word) helps people relate their past experiences to their present lives in order to make greater meaning of it all, and increases feelings of social connectedness to others.
His viewpoint is shared by Erica Hepper, Ph.D., a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey in England. She says, “When we experience nostalgia, we tend to feel happier, have higher self-esteem, feel closer to loved ones and feel that life has more meaning. And on a physical level, nostalgia literally makes us feel warmer.”
Nostalgia is different than reminiscing, which is simply the behavior of reflecting on your past (“I worked there for eleven years”). Nostalgia is an emotional response triggered by the reminiscing (“I became friends with so many good people when I worked there; I really miss that camaraderie”).
Studies have shown that, on average, people engage in nostalgia about once a week; as you might expect, it is often triggered by things like seeing an old photo or hearing a song that once held special meaning. Interestingly, nostalgia plays a varying role in our lives: Hepper says that levels tend to be highest among young adults who are coping with important life transitions, and in adults older than 50 who are looking back on and reevaluating their lives.
Nostalgia is most usually centered on cherished or significant people, places, and events in a person’s life. However, as Hepper points out, even a sad memory can be recast as a valuable learning experience, as those memories can have positive or meaningful endings (“My family moved when I was 16 and I had to switch high schools; I was sad about leaving my friends but it turned out that I stayed close to the ones who really mattered to me, and made some good friends at my new school.”)
Fun fact to end this post: the word “nostalgia” was coined in 1668 by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss physician, from the Greek “nostos” (homecoming) and “algos” (pain, grief, distress).It wasn’t until around 1920 that the word took on its current meaning.