My daughter and grandchildren live in the town where I grew up, just a few blocks from my childhood home. Sometimes when I’m visiting them, I drive by that house very slowly or lurk at the curb, motor running, savoring childhood memories.
I used to feel guilty about doing that. I mean, can you stalk a house? But then I googled some of the scientific literature on nostalgia. It suggested that I was probably doing myself a favor by lurking there and nostalgizing. (Yes, that is a word.)
Nostalgia isn’t just everyday remembering. It’s a complex emotion, a bittersweet longing for times gone by. When we’re uncomfortable, we indulge in it without realizing that this brief dip into the past will make us feel better—but it does.
Nostalgia hasn’t always had a good reputation. In 1688, a Swiss doctor claimed it was a neurological disease caused by demons. Other people had different ideas. Apparently at the time, Swiss mercenaries serving abroad often became nostalgic. Their doctors speculated that the “disorder” had been caused by the constant clanging of cowbells in the Alps, which had damaged the soldiers’ ear drums and their brains.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, many believed nostalgia could cause depression or was actually a form of psychosis. Scientific research on it didn’t begin until 1999, when psychologist Constantine Sedikides, PhD, of the University of Southampton in England, launched the first of many studies. They’ve proved that nostalgia can counteract negative emotions like loneliness, boredom and anxiety.
The average person feels nostalgic several times a week, but it happens more often with teenagers and 20-somethings who are in the midst of major changes—leaving home, starting college, beginning a new job—and who perhaps need to comfort themselves.
Those of us over 50 also do more nostalgizing than people in midlife. I know I spend more time nostalgizing now than when I was younger. I think that’s because, at 84, I have more to be nostalgic about. And it’s true too that older people, like 20-somethings, deal with a lot of changes.
Many things can trigger nostalgia. There are those uncomfortable emotions—feeling lonely, for example—and there are more mundane things as well: old photographs, a hit song you once danced to, the taste of a food you loved as a child, a whiff of familiar perfume. Or a place—like my childhood home.
Researchers often use triggers such as well-aged hit songs to induce nostalgia, or else they get their subjects talking about a happy memory. And their studies show that, besides relieving anxiety, boredom and so on, nostalgizing increases empathy. Afterward, researchers say, people tend to be more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. (They’re also more likely to splurge if they go shopping, so the news isn’t all good—except for retailers.)
Nostalgia also fosters connectedness. When couples remind each other of fond memories, it strengthens the bonds between them. If researchers induce nostalgia in members of a group, afterward they feel a closer bond to that group than people do in groups that have not been nostalgizing. They’re also more willing to be open with strangers.
I often nostalgize with friends over dinner. When we really get into it—sharing stories, for example, about radio programs we loved as children—I feel good about myself and my friends, and they seem to respond the same way. Sometimes we hark back to events that were unpleasant or scary. Psychologists have observed that when people become nostalgic about difficult times, there was almost always a happy ending or they’re recalling something that was a learning experience.
Another thing nostalgizing can help you do, according to the research, is find new meaning in life. When you call up a cherished memory, you may briefly yearn for things as they were, but at the same time, that memory assures you that you’re someone of value who has led a meaningful life. Connecting your past with the present also reminds you of who you are. Some studies have found that people who nostalgize regularly are less frightened of dying and that nostalgizing increases resilience, optimism and self-esteem.
But to me, the most surprising finding is the relationship between temperature and nostalgia. Not only are you more likely to nostalgize on cold days, but doing it can make you feel warmer. In one study, subjects spent time in a cold room. Some were instructed to nostalgize; some weren’t. The nostalgizers found the room warmer and more comfortable than the rest did. It seems that, to some extent, you can use nostalgia to help yourself tolerate a chilly environment. Some researchers suggest that might have had evolutionary value.
Interestingly, research suggests that nostalgizing could be a way to fight ageism. In one study, college students were asked to immerse themselves in a nostalgic memory of an encounter with an older person. Afterward, many expressed positive feelings about older adults in general. That didn’t happen with other students who were told to think back to an ordinary encounter with an older adult.
The latest wave of research is testing whether nostalgia can be used to treat disorders such as depression, PTSD and Alzheimer’s. At least one study found that it can be helpful in the early stages of dementia.
Nostalgia also has a drawback, however. Advertisers and politicians use it to try to manipulate us, to make us think a product or candidate can take us back to the good old days. And one study found that when researchers induced nostalgia in a group of Greek college students, studying at a British university, their love for Greek food, art and music went “off the scale,” but at the same time they became much readier to denigrate other cultures.
A few weeks ago, when I started researching nostalgia for this blog, I was somewhat skeptical about what I read. How could something so ordinary have such a significant impact on people’s emotions? But I’m feeling the impact myself right now.
I’m just back from a rare, brief vacation with my adult children and my grandchildren. We adults spent a lot of time just talking, sharing some of our most vivid memories, and I experienced all the positive impacts of nostalgia.
What’s more, I’ve stored away precious, new memories to call up in the future when I need them.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.