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The Healing Power of Reminiscing

Experts explain why looking back on the happy moments of our lives can make us feel more connected, confident, and hopeful.


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Hannah Minn

Nostalgia is not new to popular culture, but the past few years have seemed like one big blast from the past. Rising solo artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Normani have paid homage to their musical inspirations in recent videos and performances through their wardrobe choices. Kacey Musgraves dedicated a song on her album, Star-Crossed, to pagers and simpler times. Party themes are devoted to decades, social media has a hashtag and day of the week committed to throwbacks, product marketing has adapted vintage editions, show reboots are booming, and fashion styles from previous eras — like always — have begun to rise once again (please, God, let high-rise jeans be here to stay).

But nostalgia isn’t just a fun, frivolous trend or marketing ploy — it’s actually good for you. There are serious psychological benefits to remembering the good old days, especially those from your own life. A 2021 study released in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal found that nostalgia helped stave off loneliness during the Covid-19 lockdowns. If you’re looking for a boost of bliss, the key could be looking backward.

Ironically, nostalgia was considered a mental ailment in the 17th and 18th centuries. “Nostalgia was considered a medical condition that literally translated into homesickness,” Badia Ahad, the author of Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture and a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, tells Shondaland over email. “The word ‘nostalgia’ is a combination of the Greek ‘nostos’ (meaning ‘return home’) and the Latin ‘agia’ (meaning ‘pain’).”

Now, in the 21st century, homesickness and nostalgia are no longer synonymous, and nostalgia is regarded as a universal human experience and emotion felt by people of all ages and backgrounds rather than a medical illness or disorder that needs treating.

Andrew Abeyta, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University Camden, describes nostalgia as an emotional experience that involves reminiscing about something about your past you find truly special or meaningful. A 2015 article on nostalgia published in ScienceDirect says recalling idealized memories from past happy times is associated with feelings of warmth, yearning, longing, desire, and wistful affection.

A common view, Abeyta says through an email exchange with Shondaland, is that nostalgia keeps people stuck in the past, unable to live in the present or plan for the future. “However, what we find in psychological research contradicts this view. We find that reflecting on nostalgic memories enriches people’s lives in several ways.”

Images, sounds, smells, and memories from earlier chapters in our lives — particularly positive or meaningful ones from our youth — can provoke potent feelings that unlock underlying functional benefits, including positive self-esteem and self-understanding, social connectedness, optimism for the future, increased empathy, and psychological growth. These recollections can create good feelings and inspire us even on our darkest days. Nostalgia is more than just fun; it’s a personal, powerful, and meaningful tool. Here’s how public and private nostalgia can help us restore our well-being and navigate our inner world.

The psychological benefits of looking back

Nostalgia strengthens personal identity

Abeyta became interested in nostalgia as a teenager when he was trying to make sense of who he was. “I found myself reaching [into the] past to make sense of who I was and what I believe. Sometimes it was my own experiences. Sometimes it was other people’s experiences — like stories about my ancestors, lives of historical figures, etc.”

“Our life stories tell us who we are and help us in our quest for meaning,” says Clay Routledge, a leading expert in the psychology of nostalgia and a professor at North Dakota State University, in an email interview with Shondaland.

Tapping into old memories can help strengthen a person’s sense of self because the past plays a role in shaping one’s identity. According to a 2008 research article cowritten by Routledge titled “Nostalgia: Past, Present, and Future,” “another key function of nostalgia is that it may facilitate continuity between past and present selves.” Nostalgic narratives also seem to provide positive feelings about the self and boost self-confidence because we “feature the self as the protagonist.”

Nostalgia provides meaning

Researchers and scientists have learned that reminiscing not only brings people joy, but it also gives them the sense that life is meaningful and has purpose. “Nostalgia seems to have the most benefit when people reflect on how loss and other negative experiences contributed to personal growth or success or can be appreciated,” Abeyta says.

A 2006 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, written by Routledge and his colleagues, found that “Although most narratives contained negative as well as positive elements, these elements were often juxtaposed so as to form a redemption sequence — a narrative pattern that progresses from a negative to a positive or triumphant life scene.” Basically, any hurt or pain points are “filtered forgivingly” through what the research refers to as an “‘it was all for the best’ attitude,” and meaning is generated from both positive and difficult experiences.

Nostalgia makes us feel loved and connected

Engaging in a nostalgic experience, above all else, creates feelings of belonging and unity. “Nostalgia tends to be social in nature,” Abeyta says. Although we are at the center of our memories, more often than not the warmth we experience when reminiscing comes from being in the company of people we love. We become, as Abeyta says, “nostalgic for times when we were surrounded by loved ones, and thinking about these memories makes us feel loved.” Routledge has found through his research that close relationships with family and other loved ones is what makes life feel meaningful to many. “Meaning comes from feeling like we matter, that we have a significant role to play in our families, communities, and broader society,” Routledge says.

In addition to strengthening a sense of social connectedness, nostalgia can increase a person’s eagerness to help others and even motivate people to strengthen current friendships, according to a 2012 paper from the Journal of Consumer Research. Abeyta says that nostalgia has “inspired the confidence people need to put themselves out there socially and build relationships.”

Nostalgia gives us hope

Feeling hopeless? Nostalgia might help change that. Routledge says that one of the most surprising facets of nostalgia as an existential resource is its motivational power. “In fact, I would go so far as to say that nostalgia is very much a future-oriented experience because it energizes and inspires people. It reminds them that even when life is uncertain, stressful, or unpleasant, there are reasons to be hopeful. Revisiting meaningful memories can give one hope that they can create new meaningful memories in the future. Nostalgia at its best isn’t about living in the past. It is about using the past to live a good life in the present and to plan for the future.”

Not only does nostalgia provide hope that life in the future can be as meaningful as life in the past, but it also inspires us to act on those feelings and tackle our creative endeavors and personal goals. When we are reminded of what makes us feel fulfilled, we have purpose. When we have purpose, we become more confident, focused, and resilient.

How to add more nostalgia into your life

Getting intentional about experiencing nostalgia is when it’s at its most powerful. “A new development is that nostalgia is most beneficial when experienced mindfully or effortfully,” Abeyta says. “For example, Star Wars makes me feel nostalgic, and I find it uplifting to watch the movies or engage with Star Wars content. It’s an escape for me.”

This may mean seeking out nostalgic memories more often or setting aside a recurring time to engage with something you have a special connection with. “Personal nostalgia is always available to us. Whether it is looking through family photographs, watching old movies, listening to music (’90s hip-hop transports me right back to my college years), or re-creating family recipes, nostalgic memories bring about warm memories of the past in ways that are beneficial to our psychological and emotional health,” Ahad says.

For those who enjoy music, Routledge recommends listening to music from a previous era of our lives, “as we tend to have a soundtrack for our lives.” If you are a hands-on person or an art lover, he suggests taking a stab at scrapbooking or journaling. “This allows people not only to reflect on memories, but to create and ultimately share something that they believe captures what is important about those memories.”

Whether you decide to visit your old stomping grounds, whip out Polaroids from your childhood, or roll down your car windows and blast an angsty song you used to play in your high school parking lot, here’s to finding what warms your soul. The past might just be the way to an even brighter and more optimistic future. One day, we’ll be looking back on this moment too.

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This post originally appeared on Shondaland and was published October 11, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.