Nostalgia: benefts of our bittersweet memories

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At low points—when college seems too difficult, or the weather takes a turn for the worse, or when days just seem dull—we like to look back at the good old days. These days may be from the recent summertime or they might be from one’s childhood. They could be times when family and friends were around, or times when work seemed easier.

When we look back in time, we compare the present to the past. We often pick the moments full of joy and compare them to present-day life. Even if the overall feel of the past was not better than the present, the memories we choose outshine the mundane and unpleasant times. The past thus is recreated to be a golden age, highlighted by a few memories.

For some, thinking of the past as the golden age impacts them negatively. We all know someone who cannot let go of their old accomplishments, and the theme of “peaking in high school” is abundant. Nostalgia, in fact, was thought to be a psychological disorder into the 20th century, when it was referred to as “immigrant psychosis.” Today, however, scientists have found nostalgia to have benefits.

A study from the University of Southampton found that negative feelings, especially loneliness, trigger nostalgia. Nostalgia helps us deal with feelings of anxiety and lack of purpose. When we wax nostalgic, we rein in happy memories to counter negative emotions. By identifying meaningful moments in our lives, we draw meaning to our lives in general.

In addition, nostalgia provides context to our lives. When misfortune befalls us or we find ourselves alone, we remember times that were good, much like the saying that a bad day does not mean a bad life. Thus nostalgia establishes a narrative for us, allowing us to understand that a bad moment is negative in relation to an overall good life.

Nostalgia also provides a foundation for relationships. When couples share nostalgic memories, they feel closer to each other. When friends who have fallen out of touch remember their glory days together, they can rebuild the friendship.

This emotion pervades our lives, from adolescence to old age. The bittersweet memories of gleeful childhood, high school dances and loved ones past will remain. Sights, sounds, tastes and smells take memories stored deep in our mind and bring them to the forefront. With the technology of the last hundred years, nostalgia has become more prominent; within a few seconds we can search an old song or locate a picture that takes us back to the good old days.

The University News Ed Board shared some of our favorite nostalgic memories, like how one member remembers stealing his grandpa’s comfy chair to sit in while eating ramen noodles and watching Rocket Power.

Nostalgia has weak and strong forms. At the weak end of the spectrum, nostalgia provides a gentle, comfortable reminder of pleasant times past. At the strong end, it evokes a deep, visceral response.

Sights, sounds and smells act as cues that activate nostalgic memories. Signs of changes from season-to-season remind us of childhood—jumping in piles of leaves in the autumn, watching the first snowflakes of the winter, seeing the trees grow green in the spring, cooling off in the pool during the summer. A song takes us back in time to periods of time when we binge-listened to certain artists. Smells—an ex-girlfriend’s perfume, your father’s aftershave, the wafting scent of Thanksgiving dinner—can also remind us of old days.

Another member of the Ed-Board described how her grandfather told her stories before he passed away. He would talk to her about cars all the time. His favorite pastime was watching NASCAR races, and in the 1950’s he even owned a race car with his brother. Thinking about the memories with him provide her with a sense of comfort and safety. She mentioned how she is especially fond of the nostalgic memories because when she was a child, there were no worries about school, money or responsibilities. She focused on relationships and family—the two most valued things in her life.

In the same way, another member felt that the early days were simpler. He would finish his homework and hop outside, ready to play. His memories again involved his family, this time his siblings.

Nostalgia brings comfort to our lives, reminding us of what was important. In times of worry, we remember the simpler times. Family, friends and fun filled our lives. Our duties were less, and our imaginations were bigger. The emotion helps us along, and although we might spend too much time thinking about the past, looking at times when we were happy can guide us toward brighter lives. Hopefully we can look at the past while thinking about the future; let us find in the past a means to reimagine it—not a recreation, but something based on what we value.