This time of the year makes me nostalgic.
I think it is the back-to-school buzz. I absolutely love brand new office supplies. I recall past years while anticipating new experiences. Along with a crispness in the air, it is literally a fresh start whether you are going to school or not.
I guess many annual events and holidays can cause me to get nostalgic. The sights, sounds, and smells spark my memories and emotions. They open the floodgates to earlier times in my life.
(Read about a nostalgic trigger I discovered writing an article: Discover the Possibilities)
So this got me thinking, what is the deal with nostalgia? Why does it have such a bittersweet feeling to it? Should I gently try to nudge myself out of the state to be more positive? Does it serve a purpose?
This prompted my decision to write this article. I wanted to research and learn more about nostalgia and what it means for me. I hope you enjoy.
What is nostalgia?
In 1688, Johannes Hofer came up with the word nostalgia and described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” Yikes! Thankfully, we no longer subscribe to this description.
The word derives from the Greek nostos meaning to return home and algia meaning a sense of longing or pain. Together meaning a longing to return home.
Nostalgia isn’t just a longing to return home. It is a longing, but it could be for a past time, place, person, or object. But truly, it is the emotions associated with these things. Notably, our positive emotions surrounding an idealized memory. The adoration of a glorified memory along with a slight sense of loss or displacement. This differs from reminiscing which is simply reflecting on the past without the rosy filter.
We all experience it. We feel it on a deep personal level. Furthermore, we encounter it on a cultural or generational level, known as collective nostalgia. We see this with stars like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, or the Rat Pack. We are all familiar with their image and legacy even if we weren’t alive during their lives or even seen any of their work.
The hippocampus is the region of the brain that stores the memories. The amygdala is the emotional region of the brain. During an experience these regions of the brain work together. This ties emotions to an event.
The feeling is bittersweet for a couple reasons. The first is we can’t return to it. It is in the past and we can’t travel through time. The second is because what we wax nostalgically about didn’t really exist, not the romanticized version anyway. What the reality is today can never match up to an idealized version of the past.
What triggers nostalgia?
Most people experience nostalgia at least once a week, often even more. Nostalgia can be triggered in 2 major ways:
1. You encounter something through your senses.
All of our senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste can trigger nostalgia. The strongest connection being smell because of its unusually strong connection to memory.
You know what I am talking about, right? The smell of your grandmother’s cookies bring you right back to the kitchen with her. Hearing “your song” that you shared with your first love can send you back to adolescence. Perhaps running across a game or toy from your childhood evoke a nostalgic feeling for your youth.
It is interesting how our emotions can be displaced onto an object that was experienced concurrently during a specific time. We do this differently. Men tend to do this more with consumer goods such as cars. Women do this more with items associated with the events such as pictures. This is why people can get so emotional over cleaning out the house. These objects are embedded with the emotions and experiences of our lives.
2. You mentally seek it yourself.
It seems that negative events or feelings of loneliness may trigger nostalgia. As you find yourself contemplating your emotions, it may leave you longing for a better time or place. You may find yourself seeking out support from your memories.
That is what notalgia can do for you. It can tie you to your self, home, and community. At these times, that is what we need. To feel more socially connected and validated about oneself.
What do most people wax nostalgic about?
Have you ever heard of the “reminiscence bump”? I hadn’t, but it makes perfect sense. The experiences most people get nostalgic about occur between the ages of 15 and 30.
There is debate surrounding why this is so. Some suggest that more memories are encoded in the brain. Other theories believe that it is because of the typical life script we follow.
In our culture, we are all familiar with “the average life” events. We know that the teen and young adult years are filled with relationships, graduations, babies, and buying houses. Years that are filled with events that help define who we are. Years that give meaning to our lives. They are our autobiography, our story.
(See Related: Why stories are irresistible)
It also happens to be at the major transitions in our life that we tend to get more nostalgic, such as entering adulthood or aging.
Because nostalgia is an emotion, it is obviously very personal. Two people reminiscing about an event they shared in the past could feel very different emotions. One may get nostalgic and another won’t. However, milestone events in our lives could spark nostalgia in many people because of the emotional nature, such as a graduation.
Just for fun, I am going to try to trigger nostalgic thoughts in you. Look at the table below. Find your age and the corresponding popular culture columns. Do any of them trigger rosy thoughts of the past for you? First dates? Hanging out with your friends? Singing in the car? Unfortunate fashion choices? Sorry if you are in your twenties, but you are in the midst of these experiences and your triggers are all around you now.
How does nostalgia have an impact on us?
Does feeling nostalgic do anything to us? Yes.
Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. This is helpful since a lot of us have these feelings from time to time. Studies have shown that the body feels warmer and is more tolerant to cold. Talk about comforting, it is like a hug. A quick fix that doesn’t cost anything or do bodily harm!
This comfort comes from reminding us of our place in the world, our community, and our intimate circles. It reassures us there is value and meaning to our life. It shows us that we continue on through time and transitions. This leaves us feeling better and more optimistic about the future.
Nostalgia can even prompt us to behave in certain ways. It can give us the urge to recreate the past. Seeking out partners that reflect similar characteristics of someone from our past. Adopting certain beliefs or affiliations because it was what we saw our parents do. Maintaining certain rituals or traditions because that is how it has always been done.
The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact,
a return to the idealized past.
~Robertson Davies, A Voice from the Attic
Like much in life, overdoing nostalgia can be bad. This can be especially so if you are making decisions based on unrealistic standards. So before you make any big decisions based on the past, make sure you are seeing things for the way they are.
In the end, I would say to sit back and savor your sunny memories. Enjoy the warmth, connectedness, and optimism they bring you. You earned those memories and deserve to reap the benefits. Then take a deep breathe and step back to the present with a renewed vigor.
I don’t know about you, but this made me feel good to learn. I guess I assumed that because of the slight melancholy feeling associated with nostalgia that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Additionally, I am trying to practice mindfulness and being in the moment, as opposed to the past or the future. Now I will welcome a quick jaunt to the past guilt free. Knowing that it will warm my heart in the end. I need to remember that in the middle of winter.
Do you get nostalgic often? Do you tend to go back to the same memories over and over again? Did I trigger nostalgia for you with the table. Let me know in the poll or comments.
Davis, Fred. Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York: Free, 1979. Print
Death By Nostalgia: a Diagnosis of Context-Specific Cases from Association from Consumer Research
Can nostalgia make us feel good about the future? from Futurity
Davis, Fred. Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York: Free, 1979. Print
Movement, memory & the senses in soundscape studies from SensoryStudies.org
Music-Evoked nostalgia from Psychology Today
Nostalgia: a neuropsychiatric understanding from Association for Consumer Research
Nostalgia for young adulthood? Rethinking the ‘reminiscence bump’ from Psychological Science
Quotations about Nostalgia from Quote Garden
The neuroscience of nostalgia from Brain Decoder
The science behind nostalgia and why we’re so obsessed with the past from Elite Daily
What does nostalgia do? from Psychology Today
What is nostalgia good for? Quite a bit, research shows from The New York Times
Why do I get nostalgic? from Science Friday
Why do we feel nostalgia from YouTube via Vsauce