Discover the power of nostalgia and how the past can help heal you.
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The sound of waves crashing on the shore, the smell of freshly baked biscuits, the chorus of your favourite rock song, these are all triggers for us to become nostalgic, to look back sentimentally on something in our past that holds deep personal meaning. But rather than just pleasant daydreaming, being nostalgic can have positive effects on our wellbeing.
Studies have shown that people who are nostalgic are more confident, are more likely to maintain healthy relationships, have a greater sense of self-worth and are more optimistic about the future. Being nostalgic can also help counteract loneliness, which is a precursor to poor mental health.
So how does nostalgia work?
Nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho, professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, says nostalgia works on a psychological level by “helping a person maintain stability during times of change, and by “helping them cope during times of adversity.”
“What nostalgia does is that it reconnects a person to their own history. It gives them a sense that even though so much change is going on around them, something stays the same – and that is very comforting, because change can be stressful,” says Batcho
“People who are nostalgic are more likely to have a healthy sense of confidence and self-esteem and they’re also more likely to be interconnected socially,” adds Batcho, whose research involves developing an inventory test to measure the likelihood an individual will become nostalgic.
Nostalgia can help mend relationships and build stronger ones
According to Batcho, nostalgic people have healthy coping mechanisms that make them more willing to seek advice and emotional support from others and they are also more likely to engage in active problem solving – behaviours that have positive implications for those individuals’ health.
“What we know from the health literature is that it’s very important to have a social support system in place when an individual is battling diseases that need a lot of treatment,” she says. “Having a social support network can even be helpful in a preventative kind of way, because people who are connected socially are more likely to join a health club, a sports team, or monitor their diet or exercise progress because others are doing it with them.”
So what can we do to indulge in a bit of our own healthy daydreaming about days long gone?
5 ways you can use nostalgia to boost your wellbeing
1. Have a nostalgic ritual
The longing for a real something or someone from your past falls under the banner of ‘personal nostalgia.’ It could be for a loved one, a pet, place, school, a song, a possession, or any number of things. This kind of nostalgia is ‘bittersweet’ explains Batcho because it is a blend of ambivalent emotions – memories that are ‘sweet’ such as ‘I liked my life back then’ but also memories that are ‘bitter’ like ‘But my brother was a real pain.’ Interestingly, reliving the bitter as well as the sweet memories gives us a powerful tool to deal with hardships because it allows what Batcho calls ‘positive reappraisal’. That’s where we see the good and the bad together, in turn helping us to see the positive in our present day hardship.
To tap into your sense of personal nostalgia, try creating a ritual around something meaningful in your past and set aside some time to experience that ritual. It could be digging up old photographs on a quiet Sunday afternoon, reading a poem that you once liked, writing about an event from your past, or even reminiscing with a childhood friend over coffee. Batcho advises there is no hard and fast rule to what you should reminisce about or how often you should experience nostalgia, but “it should be used as frequently as is needed.”
2. Hold a get-together and reminisce
Sharing your nostalgic memories with others is a good way to nostalgise, says Tim Wildschut, associate professor within the psychology department at the University of Southampton, UK. Strapped for ideas about what to do? Think about how you can infuse something whimsical or retro into your next get-together with friends or family as a talking point for memories. You might like to set a historical theme with a dress code from a bygone era, or hold a vintage high tea with comfort foods from the past, or even ask everyone to bring a photo of themselves on their 21st birthday.
Make get-together's small, intimate and interactive
3. Let the music take you back
Both Wildschut and Batcho agree that music is one of the best ways to experience nostalgia. “Listening to music gives the same benefits as writing about memories,” Wildschut says. To find out which music will wind your mental clock back, think about the songs from your past that may have held special significance at landmark moments in your life. Was The Beatles’ number playing when you had your first kiss? Was your first dance at your wedding an Elvis song? Play them as often as you like. While you’re listening, remind yourself why they mean so much to you and pay attention to lyrics that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling.
4. Do something childish – just for fun!
Doing things we did when we were kids can also be a useful strategy for dialling back to the past. “It might only be that a person has to go all the way back to the time of their childhood to when they felt safe and secure, and more importantly, really loved for who they were to find examples of problems that were dealt with earlier,“ says Batcho.
Some ideas to bring out your inner child include colouring in, finger painting and swinging on swings in your local park. Chances are, if you feel a tad awkward about the behaviour as an adult, you’re heading down the right path.
5. Anticipate a loss (but enjoy the moment)
Anticipatory nostalgia is a type of nostalgia currently being investigated by researchers. This is when you feel nostalgic for the loss of something before you have even lost it – consider the example of a parent who might put a child on a bus for the first time and realise that one day their child will be so independent that they won’t need them anymore. Although tinged with some sadness, Batcho says this type may prove to be personally beneficial because it “reminds you to value and treasure being in the present moment, because it’ s true that nothing lasts forever.”
Being grateful also helps in dealing with nostalgia
To experience this kind of nostalgia, think of the things in your everyday life that you highly value such as the coffee shop down the road that makes your favourite coffee and imagine a time when you will no longer have these things. Afterwards, remind yourself that you still do have them and make a point of enjoying them.
What are the things in your life you are most nostalgic about? Join the conversation below.