avatarSean Kernan

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Self

Why Nostalgia Is a Useful Psychological Resource

Syncing the past with the present can help us manage the stress of life.

My sister and I wearing brown grocery bags like shirts. We’ll call it a family tradition. Shannon is clearly making a point about something. (Source: author)

I glanced at her walking beside me with her hand in mine, and her brown eyes pointed forward. “She is way too beautiful for me,” I thought, with a wince. We were teenagers and I was plagued with insecurity, but still grateful to be with her. The whole girlfriend thing was still new to me.

We’d walked over the dunes behind my house, and onto the quiet, mostly-private beach that lined Chesapeake Bay and that shielded us from the occasional storm. As usual, there was a cool and thick fog that gently blew across my face. It limited our vision in a way that was oddly relaxing. There was no sound, except for a subtle splashing of water. The natural aesthetic was unrivaled, and felt like we were walking inside in a desktop screensaver.

“You sure we won’t get lost in this fog?” She said with a nervous laugh and turned to me.

“No, I do this walk all the time,” I reassured her. Then she extended her hand out with a smile and said, “OK, good, I can still see my hand.” We were having a blast. This beach was always so relaxing, and both of us were stressing about school too much. Feeling the sand on our bare feet, and enjoying the calming fog was working wonders.

Years later, I walked these same foggy beaches after a back injury. I was feeling down on myself, wondering why my recovery was taking so long, and why I’d been targeted by the universe with this malady. These beaches healed my thoughts and took my mind to happier places.

Even today, decades later, I get a wave of nostalgia anytime I see fog. I don’t get much of it here in Florida, but when I do, typically in the morning, you’ll find me on my couch, looking out the window and getting wistful about bygone days.

Psychologists classify nostalgia as a social emotion, that is self-conscious and bittersweet, but mostly positive. It often stems from a yearning for the past and old relationships. Nostalgia is often triggered by the senses. For example, anytime I smell chlorine, I get nostalgic for my summer spent playing in pools while visiting my grandparents in Florida. I remember all the fun friendships and trouble we got into, and lounging in friends’ homes playing video games.

Scientists treat nostalgia as a complex cognitive emotion that uses many parts of the brain — which are also used in emotional regulation, reward processing, self-reflection, and auto-biographical memory. Deliberate nostalgia is being studied and is shown to improve friendships, motivation, and lower cortisol.

One study by Dr. Wijnand at King’s College London found that bad weather can trigger nostalgia, which is true in my case — though I now consider fog good weather because of what it does for me. Bad weather tends to cause more stress which drives more nostalgic thoughts as a coping mechanism. We often do it without even realizing it.

Another study found that exercises in reminiscing nostalgic moments can strengthen bonds between two people. The simple act of messaging or calling them and talking about stories from the past, can reinforce that human connection, which is so central to wellbeing.

You can invoke nostalgia in a few ways. First, the obvious and simple way, is to reflect on those moments and have a mental rolodex of valuable memories. The other is to use your senses. Researchers found that scent evoked nostalgia is particularly effective against stress. Be careful. In my case, sniffing chlorine wouldn’t be advisable. But going to a swimming pool often does this anyways. I was walking by a house recently, and caught the smell of chlorine, which was being used to clean a driveway. It felt like I was back at a swim meet again.

Psychologist, Dr. Clay Routledge, asserts that team oriented activities around building nostalgia can promote friendships and teamwork. It even provides more meaning, which galvanizes people to pursue important goals they lost focus on.

My graduate school classmates and I were on an academic team for two years and became very close. We still stay in touch and talk about old times, and have periodic zoom calls to check in on how the others are doing. I never get off that call feeling worse than before. I often feel invigorated and ready to do things.

Because nostalgia is anchored in relationships, it tends to push people to pursue more social oriented goals and pro-social behaviors such as making friends, volunteering, and being more positive. These are all correlated to higher levels of contentment.

If you’re having trouble thinking of nostalgic memories, try focusing on your life between age 16 and 25 (give or take). This tends to be a common source of nostalgia, and is known by scientists as the “reminiscence bump”. Perhaps this is why so many people think music peaked during their high school years.

Having family photos helps too. One of the best decisions I ever made was having all of our photos scanned, so I could look back through them and not worry about their destruction (all of our childhood home videos were destroyed in an accident and I’m still not over it).

For example, I just did this nostalgia exercise and found an important picture. This is with my grandfather and it may not seem all that significant:

My sister Shannon, grandpa, and me. This is circa 1995, which is nearly 30 years ago, which freaks me out.

The photo reminds me of our road trips from Florida to Virginia and back, that happened several times a year. Airplane tickets were more expensive back then and we were tight on money. We endured these 12 hour drives but also had fun on them, talking, listening to audiobooks (which required 12 cassettes). We played road games and did sign scavenger hunts. I drew pictures. Shannon and I inevitably fell asleep, and woke up from rough naps at gas stations.

Looking back through these little moments, reminds me of how great my grandparents were, and how good my childhood was, despite the blips I endured. My grandfather passed away two years ago at 97, so these photos are important for preserving his memory and remembering these stories.

I also have my late-dog’s nametag in a box. When I look at it, I tend to smile and think of all the funny and quirky things he did. It is somber, sure, but it reminds me of how much fun and laughter I’ve had.

Just to recap: consider making an actual list of nostalgic memories. Think of sensory experiences and people that invoke this nostalgia. Look at objects and family photos. Sometimes I send these photos in a group message to old friends (who were in the photo) and ask if they remember. I generally receive excited responses and we talk about getting together again. It reinforces our friendship.

Take time to look back. Your past doesn’t have to be this haunted hallway of mirrors. It’s a great psychological resource, and a healthy way to manage stress, improve friendships, and stay more motivated. Generally, sandwiched between all the chaos of life, are plenty of great moments waiting to be revisited. You’ll be better off for it.

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