Close your eyes and take a breath... now think of a time in your life that fills you with happiness... It feels nice doesn’t it! Sometimes it’s important to take a pause in our routine and take a trip down memory lane. We often get lost in the here and now, whipped up in the storm of reality that we forget to appreciate where we have come. Whether we are going through a tough event or things are simply changing in our lives, we will often find solace in memories of simpler times. This has become known as Nostalgia – one of the most misunderstood aspects of our human psyche. Although it is often judged to be an unhealthy yearning for childhood, Nostalgia is actually a beautiful and useful tool to help us overcome challenges in the present day. When we are going through a transition like becoming an adult or reaching retirement, or feeling overwhelmed and dissatisfied, nostalgic memories can reduce the distress and provide that boost of well-being we sometimes just need. It reminds people that their life has purpose and that any present feeling of unpleasantness will be temporary.
Funnily enough our understanding of Nostalgia has changed over the years. A medical student, Johannes Hofer, first suggested it was a disease brought on by separation from an individual’s homeland. People even tried to diagnose it as a mental condition, similar to the likes of depression associated with letting go of childhood. Reflecting on your early events was ridiculed and approached as if it needed treating rather than celebrating. Thankfully we no longer take such a dim view on Nostalgia. Whilst it is true that people delve into their memories when sad, lost or dissatisfied in the moment, this doesn’t mean Nostalgia causes negative emotion. Instead it is an antidote to people’s suffering, boosting their self-esteem and social belonging by providing a rewarding experience that may be shared with others. Nostalgia gives people a momentary experience of bliss that can provide the strength needed to persevere through hard times. So don’t apologise for re-visiting the past, instead find the time to appreciate those precious nuggets you have stored in memory.
That said Nostalgia will often come with a bittersweet taste, creating a desire to escape from the present and crave our unreachable past. If we retreat too much into parts of our childhood it can have a negative impact on our mental health. It’s important to therefore strike a healthy balance between ‘reminiscing’ and ‘living’, allowing past joys to remind us of our meaning and drive us on through the challenges we face today. We all need a gentle reminder of the things that are important to us, the people we’ve shared moments with and the lessons we’ve learnt along the way. Choosing to reminisce is not a symptom of illness or sign of being stuck in the past, but a tool for reminding us that life is full of moments we create and can re-visit whenever in our minds.
It’s tempting to see Nostalgia as being stuck in the past but that’s not actually the case. Instead it’s a reminder that life has meaning and purpose, helping us to find the confidence we need to face challenges in the present day.
To guide you in your experience of nostalgia we’ve gathered together some useful exercises for you. Highlighting ways to harness the health benefits of nostalgic reflection, they show how to use those early memories to your advantage.
When we sit there and think about our early years, little pockets of information suddenly pop into our mind. This is your 'episodic' memory; a store in the brain where information to do with specific events, situations and experiences are found. But because there is a limit to how much information we can recall, we have to rely on symbols that trigger memories and bring them back to life! Try to seek out some of those precious symbols from your past and allow them to flood your mind with memories you thought were lost.
When you reflect on memories from the past, what thoughts tend to fill your mind? Do you find yourself yearning to be back in that moment? Rather than allowing it to create feelings of dissatisfaction the challenge is to instead focus on what your past teaches you about the present day. Try to become comfortable reflecting on your past by writing down a few memories that stand out and think about what those memories actually tell you. Maybe they show what’s important to you, what you’re passionate about, or remind you of people that were influential to who you are?
Memories often don't focus on just us, they capture events we shared with others, relate to times we connected with friends or refer to moments where relationships blossomed with new people. They are inherently social, bringing the experiences we’ve had with others back to life. You’ll find it’s powerful to reminisce with others you’ve shared the experience with. Take time to reminisce with friends or family members that were significant to your early life. A shared memory recalled amongst friends is like building a bridge between the past and present.
It’s important to remember that Nostalgia can be dangerous if we constantly fixate on early years; wishing we could rewind the clock and escape the present day. People commonly try to recreate an event they enjoyed for example, subconsciously attempting to shape the present to match the past - almost always to no prevail! With this in mind, we encourage you to instead seek fulfilment in the present by taking time to appreciate what you are doing and who you are doing it with. Live in the moment so that one day you’ll look back at it with a smile.
Nostalgia is a valuable tool for reminding us of where we’ve come. Staying true to our roots and reflecting on the journey we’ve had, helps us to remain grounded as we pursue the future ahead. Provided it’s used in the right way, you’ll find nostalgia to be a gift that keeps on giving...
Blog Author: Ben Oliver - Feb 8th 2021