Sometimes I remember the cheesy, pink sunsets that I watched with my friends in Croatia, the fun we had, talking about life or going skinny dipping at night in the dark ink of the sea. The overwhelming waves of love for our friendship, so intense that it seemed to last forever. Yet the friendships didn’t last, And the memories became a blur of the adventures we once had together, but will never come back. This is when I realized, I do not always feel happy when I reminisce about my past.
When I tried to get to the bottom of this tendency of myself, I stumbled upon the term “Nostalgia”. Initially, I connected being nostalgic to something positive. You know, how you remember the good times of the past. But at the same time, there is often the feeling of missing something. It seems like I have lost something that I will never get back. It can be friends who I don’t talk to anymore. But it can also be the feeling of ease that I felt and the older I get, I am not able to get back.
So what does nostalgia even mean? Is it feeling the happy emotions of the past or rather reminiscing something that is long gone? Or is it fear of the future and avoidance of the present? Maybe if I would be happier in the present, my nostalgic feelings wouldn’t be as strong or as negative, instead I would simply consider them as beautiful memories.
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries defines nostalgia as “a sad feeling mixed with pleasure when you think of happy times in the past”. This definition of nostalgia contains both elements, the positive feelings of nice memories of the past and the often connected sadness to these memories, for example the feeling of having lost something that will never come back. It is even composed of the Greek words “nostos” (return) and “algos” (pain).
But the gnawing feeling stays… Often nostalgia feels like a way of avoiding the present and hiding in the comfort of the past. When I dive into the old memories I feel the same emotions that I did then. But is this only a temporary way to get me out of my present sadness? But to hell with all these worries – I can give you a heads up: There are many positive effects that nostalgia can have for us. Because although nostalgia is something that relates to emotions and memories of the past, it can actually be very useful for our future. Sounds interesting to you? Stay tuned.
Before I start explaining why nostalgia can help us towards a brighter future, I first want to take a second and look into the history of nostalgia. This is actually very interesting. Our perception of nostalgia has changed a lot during the past years. For the longest time, it was considered to be more or less the same as homesickness. This equation only changed from the late 20th century onwards.
During the 17th and 18th century nostalgia was perceived as being a neurological affliction. It was even seen as a cerebral disease. This was first termed by a Swiss physician: Johannes Hofer. He observed that Swiss mercenaries, doing trades on foreign shores showed strange symptoms. Among others, he observed symptoms of anxiety, anorexia and persistent thinking of home. In the search to explain these occurrences several other theories were conceptualized, up until the early 19th century. They mostly explained the symptoms due to environmental factors. Afterwards, the definition shifted from a neurological disorder to more of a psychological disorder, connecting nostalgia to a form of depression and melancholia. Only in the late 20th century, the definition of nostalgia was separated from that of homesickness, leading us to the Oxford dictionary definition above.
Okay, so how is all of this supposed to be connected to our future now? With the acceptance of nostalgia ‘s common definition, this phenomena was increasingly researched. However, as this was rather late, not much research about it exists yet. But, the existing ones mostly agree on this: nostalgia can be a useful resource of our body, to increase motivation for our present and future. Research shows that nostalgia is a future-oriented emotion. So it can help us to look back in the past, to define our future. nostalgia can help us to engage in positive relevant behaviour, as for example doing physical activity or engaging more in social contacts. It can help us behave according to our inspirations and aspirations.
During the pandemic I often felt lonely and not knowing what to do with myself. I had just moved to a new city, not knowing anyone. But it was also not really possible to go out and meet new people. Especially during this time I caught myself often getting lost in memories. After having established the use of Nostalgia this seems logical. Research shows that negative emotions and the feeling of nostalgia correlate. Thus, it is possible that nostalgia serves as a regulatory resource for such emotional states. It can also draw us away from avoidant states. So, when I was sitting alone in my small room during the pandemic feeling very lonely, it seems reasonable that I thought a lot more about old memories. Because it is a resource to keep me on track, to remember what inspires me and to motivate me to act on this. Maybe, I wouldn't even be writing this article right now, without all the nostalgic thoughts… Okay, I am drifting away now…
Another very interesting role that nostalgia can play is a connector to other people. It was shown that sharing nostalgic thoughts during social interactions can help us to connect with each other. Up to 75% of conversations may even include nostalgic content. This again shows the future-oriented character, as nostalgia is then used to build or improve social connections and to create intimacy.
So, the next time you realise that your thoughts are constantly drifting to emotional memories of the past, don’t worry. You are just preparing yourself for an inspiring present and for your bright future