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The Joys and Pitfalls of Nostalgia

The Joys and Pitfalls of Nostalgia

As the holiday season approaches we are often immersed in memories and traditions of years past. This often has a varying effect on individuals ranging from “warm and fuzzy” to debilitating. So, what is the impact of nostalgia on mental health? Are there ways to enjoy the positives without the drawbacks?

The idea of nostalgia has several different working definitions. The most widely accepted definition is reminiscing about “personal memories from long ago.” This can include looking at family photos, home videos, listening to music or even thinking about or submersing oneself in a past time period that we did not even live in.  The term nostalgia or “nostos” is a Greek word meaning “a longing to return home.” While currently the idea of nostalgia has a more positive, whimsical connotation, in the 17th century it was actually considered a psychological disorder.

A Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer came up with the term in 1668 which he applied to soldiers returning from war. He noticed that these soldiers would have an intense emotional reaction to hearing the “milking songs from their homeland.” He noted the symptoms could range in severity from mild unhappiness to “severe suicidal thoughts, cardiac arrest and brain inflammation.” Through the years these symptoms were continued to be seen, studied and treated in soldiers during the Civil War and there were more than 5,000 reported cases in the Union Army alone. In retrospect the soldiers were like suffering from “a variety of conditions, from PTSD to depression to extreme exhaustion, which were unhelpfully lumped together under nostalgia.”

Over time, the idea of nostalgia morphed into the idea that we commonly know today, of a longing for the past. This new understanding also included the positives that can come from reminiscing about the past. Research shows that this emotional experience is found across all cultures and countries and can actually be a very effective coping strategy to combat depression, stress, and/or grief.  This research also shows that “those in nostalgic states are more likely to engage in acts of altruism, strengthen bonds with loved ones and reach out to strangers.”

While listening to old high school tunes, eating our favorite food as a kid, or reading old love letters can bring back positive memories of being young and carefree, there are downsides to this state of being.  Nostalgia can often feel bitter sweet. “It’s sweet because it allows us to momentarily relive good times; it’s bitter because we recognize that those times can never return. Longing for our own past is referred to as personal nostalgia, and preferring a distant era is termed historical nostalgia.”

Since nostalgia is a universal experience it is likely that we all have dealt with this emotion from time to time. It is usually most prevalent during times of transition like moving into “adulthood, aging, or retirement.” In my clinical work I notice nostalgia also occurs during grief of loss of a loved one, having children, or relocation.  Nostalgia can also shape the way in which we experience our current set of circumstances. We all have heard someone say “back in my day…” and proceed to discuss how things were better in the past and how adopting some of the past thinking in the present would make things better. The reality, however is, change is the only constant and by applying “old” ways of thinking to the present day stunts our growth both personally and as a society.

Figuring out how to enjoy the pleasant parts of nostalgia while avoiding the pitfalls can be a difficult balance. Important things to consider is whether or not focusing on past memories has an effective or maladaptive result. Sharing stories around the dinner table can lead to stronger emotional ties, bonds and happy feelings toward self and others. However, solely talking about the past can have an alienating quality in relationships with others and likely will lead to a strong sense of dissatisfaction with one’s present life.  So enjoy the holiday season and all of the gifts nostalgia can offer while still enjoying the present.

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