We're Living in a Nostalgia Boom. Here's How to Harness Its Powers For Good

Julia Holmes
·13 mins read

Thanks in large part to the coronavirus, we’re living through a nostalgia boom — not the inauthentic social media “nostalgia” of yore, but a deep global longing for the comparative normalcy of our pre-pandemic lives. Nostalgia helps us cope with loss, stress, anxiety, and sadness, so it’s no surprise that it’s having a big year in 2020. But our very understandable longing for days past demands a few questions: How do we harness all this nostalgia for good? That is, how much nostalgia is too much — how can we capitalize on its many benefits without getting trapped in an Inception-like dream state?

We long for the familiar old structure of the days and weeks, for the simple outings we took for granted — huddling around a tiny bar table to share a plate of fries with friends, without worrying about getting sick or making others sick. We long to travel, anywhere, for physical closeness with friends and family, for a time when we thought nothing of sitting side-by-side at the dinner table. Something as forgettable as a movie ticket, shoved absent-mindedly into a pocket, now has the aura of a holy relic. We’ve been reaching out to people farther and farther out in our old social orbits to reconnect — Is everyone okay? How are they doing? The more uncertain the future looks, the more we’re inclined as a species to reflect on the past. As tough as these times are, it’s all but inevitable that parents and kids alike will look back on them with a powerful nostalgia.

Nostalgia is “acute homesickness,” a painful longing for home. The word was coined in 1688, by a doctor treating Swiss mercenaries stationed far from home who were suffering intense, debilitating anxiety and depression. Dozens of scholarly papers tried to get at the root of the terrible and sometimes fatal disorder, blaming everything from demons to the incessant clanging of cowbells in the Alps, which, they theorized, had caused permanent brain damage.

Of course, the great irony of this pandemic-era spike in nostalgia is that most of us are at home all the time — and have been for months. Ours is a homebound nostalgia for other worlds — the things we used to do outside of our homes and away from our families (so that we could look forward to coming home to them).

The good news is that a host of recent studies have found that a healthy dose of nostalgia is good for the brain and can help protect us from the corrosive effects of angst, loneliness, and grief. Nostalgia is all about the mind-body connection (sadness and anxiety trigger nostalgia, but so does severe cold weather, the body’s attempt to make us feel warmer). In essence, nostalgia is a stressed brain’s search for a stored positive feeling that will give us the energy we need to keep going during difficult times. Nostalgia comforts us, reminds us of who we are (largely by reminding us of our ties to other people). But perhaps the real power of nostalgia is its ability to help us re-contextualize despair and loss into an emotional, philosophical gain in strength, perspective, and determination.

“Nostalgia isn’t a silver bullet, where you can just think about a happy experience and all your problems are solved,” says Dr. Andrew Abeyta, a psychologist at Rutgers University whose research into nostalgia focuses on the need to belong and the need for meaning in life. But he argues that nostalgia — if better understood and practiced mindfully — can protect us during times of great stress, inspire us to navigate toward a better future, and motivate us to connect with others, both the people we know and love, and the strangers who make up our larger communities. “My research is all about how nostalgia energizes people to want to connect with others,” says Abeyta.

Fatherly talked to Dr. Abeyta about how nostalgia works — and how we can make the most of this currently abundant natural resource, by building up a repository of positive nostalgia, savoring and anticipating future nostalgia, and finding meaningful outlets for the creative energy and connectedness nostalgia fosters.

Right now, a lot of people, it seems, are grappling with a sometimes desperate-feeling, escapist nostalgia in all the isolation and discontinuity of the pandemic reality. A month into lockdown, there was this really specific longing for ordinary things people used to do, like going out to restaurants, sitting in a movie theater. Now this new normal is more familiar, but there’s arguably more uncertainty, more distress. How is this shifting our nostalgia?

We know that nostalgia is both comforting and inspiring. And so we might say that some of that early nostalgia was really just about comfort — just trying to, you know, make it through, distract yourself from what’s going on outside, talk yourself down off the cliff. I think a healthy way to transition from that is to use that secure base, if you will, to adjust to the new normal. So there’s research, my research and others, that nostalgia is actually a future-orienting experience.

Nostalgia isn’t a silver bullet, where you can just think about a happy experience and all your problems are solved. But nostalgia can inspire us to surround ourselves with positivity. I think it’s about just sort of being mindful of your thoughts, which I think goes along with a lot of what we’re finding in just positive psychology in general: Being aware of our present and being intentional about how we reflect upon our past, so that we can get the most out of it.

What happens in our brains when we feel nostalgic?

In my research, we tended to find nostalgia as a mostly positive emotional experience, in which people bring to mind momentous or personally meaningful events from their own experiences. So what’s going on in their minds? In terms of emotion, nostalgia tends to be a mixed emotional experience — there’s a sense of loss, sadness, longing, but there’s also a sense of happiness and joy that is characteristic of the emotions that people experience when they’re being nostalgic. And what I’ve found in my research is that the positive tends to outweigh the negative.

And then, in addition to the emotional component, nostalgia usually involves a cognitive component, where people are bringing to mind a specific event from their personal past. These [memories] tend to be self-focused, meaning that the person reflecting on the past tends to be at the center, but they also almost always feature other people within the nostalgic memory, and almost always feature themes related to love, support and belonging. So people are bringing to mind personally cherished memories, where they’re right at the center, they’re the protagonist of that memory, but they tend to involve interactions with close, meaningful relationships, whether they’re family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships.

Do nostalgic memories look different from other kinds of memories?

When people are telling a story about a nostalgic memory, we tend to see a typical narrative structure, what we call a redemptive sequence: They start out negative, but then at the end, they trend positive. So in other words, if people are bringing up loss, at the end of a nostalgic story, they’re usually talking about placing those losses, or that sadness, into context, saying, like, even though I really miss this person, I miss being around them, they really made a strong impact on my life.

Do we select memories for nostalgia because they’re already steeped in emotion, or is it more like the brain goes in search of a positive emotion and just kind of attaches it to a memory that fits the bill?

So I’ll rely on a set of recent studies, published a couple months ago, on “anticipated nostalgia” — and what this research points to is the idea that there are, to a certain extent, experiences that we look to either in our present or in our near future, and think, These are going to be really special memories. So it could be the birth of a child, for example — if you’re a month out, you might look at that upcoming birth as being something that you’re going to remember forever. And the research suggests that people are able to identify those situations, and in anticipating feeling nostalgic, they are more likely to savor those experiences as they’re unfolding. It’s kind of like picking out your nostalgic mark [on the horizon], really savoring that moment, and then using those details from the savoring later on, when you reflect on it.

How does that relate to the idea of practicing nostalgia or being more aware around your own nostalgia, to make the most of it? How can we build up a robust repository of nostalgic memories that we know will work for us when we encounter loneliness or stress or negative emotions?

So some of the research suggests that stress and negative emotions tend to naturally trigger nostalgia. But I think what’s neat about anticipated nostalgia, is that if people know, just generally, that nostalgia is something that is good for them, something they can fall back on when they’re experiencing hard times, they can identify those moments in the present. And what the new research suggests is that savoring seems to be a really important part of what becomes nostalgic. Savoring is just really paying attention to all of the emotional inputs, really being mindful and present within the experience. I think there’s a natural tendency when the present feels dark and stressful and ugly to use nostalgia as a way to escape what’s going on right now. Whereas if you use nostalgia more intentionally, perhaps instead of using nostalgia as a way to sort of escape the present, you can use it as a way to make sense of what’s going on in your life.

Are some families more nostalgic than others? Is nostalgia good for family life?

Nostalgia can help facilitate closeness within families, particularly in situations where you have, you know, maybe siblings who have grown apart as adults — nostalgia can be something that can help people who have grown apart to kind of reconnect. But also, just generally, there’s a reason why when we get together with family, when we get together with friends, we tend to reminisce about the good old times, right? I think that sort of thing is not only enjoyable, but it certainly brings us closer together.

Do kids experience nostalgia? Is nostalgia even good for kids?

There is some research that kids as young as 8 years old can experience nostalgia. I think they experience nostalgia, similarly — they like it, and I think the positive emotional benefits are there. And certainly, I think it makes them feel loved and appreciated by their families. What’s interesting is that not a lot of work has been done on the timeframe of nostalgia. So when does a memory become a nostalgic memory? Is it a year? Is it months? Is it weeks? I don’t know, maybe kids fast-track nostalgia [laughs].

You mentioned that nostalgia is often triggered by stress and negative emotions. Is there any harm in feeling nostalgic?

There is a tendency to label nostalgia or put nostalgia in the realm of negative psychological experience or negative emotions, because it tends to pop up when we’re feeling bad or feeling distressed, when we’re feeling worried and anxious. And because of that, for a long time, it was lumped in with sadness and loss and mental illness.

And depending on people’s experiences, nostalgia changes — the path of nostalgia changes. We recently did a study, for example, where people who have a more negative relational history — people who have a tendency to not trust others and to want to avoid closeness within relationships — we have some evidence that nostalgia may push those types of people further from social relationships. So from the standpoint of social relationships are good, right, you could look at nostalgia as having a negative role or a negative function there.

If nostalgia has the potential to be future-oriented and action-oriented, how can we harness the energy that nostalgia gives us to make the most of our present?

If we want to take advantage of the positive benefits of nostalgia, we want to find outlets for that energy, for that inspiration. Nostalgia is not going to push us toward the correct outlets — we have to find those for ourselves, or reach out to others to help us find the correct outlets for our nostalgia. My research is all about how nostalgia energizes people to want to connect with others. But if we don’t seek out these positive opportunities to connect with others, then you actually might not benefit so much from nostalgia. So I think, nostalgia right now could be playing a role in helping people adjust to the new normal, by inspiring us to connect to others in a healthy way. Whether that’s setting up, you know, Zoom calls or social groups where you can go and talk to other people. There’s also some research that nostalgia inspires creativity. But to a certain extent, if you don’t have an outlet for that creativity, you can be really discouraged. And so it’s important to find outlets for nostalgia — nostalgia inspires meaning in life, and so it should inspire you to invest in activities that give you a sense of purpose. If you don’t have those outlets existing, you might be lost after nostalgia, or you might not experience the same sort of benefits.

Nostalgia is playing a big role in our politics at the moment — what often seems like a negative role, as people attach their politics to a past that isn’t necessarily shared or even perceived as being authentic by others. Is there a level on which people can actually seek understanding and find a sort of common ground by sharing nostalgic memories?

There is some recent research on the effects of nostalgia on prejudice, kind of broadly. And at least at an individual level, the sharing of nostalgia helps people to feel closer to one another, even if those people are very different from one another, right? I don’t know if [that kind of sharing of] nostalgia is necessarily going to solve the partisan divide. But at least at the personal level, it could, maybe, you know, lead to some understanding or some realization that the folks on the other side may not be quite as different as we think.

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