When was the last time you’ve unpacked your childhood memory boxes collecting dust in your parents’ attic? Reviewed your photo gallery from when you were young? Or reread old journal entries, letters and stories you wrote? Trips down memory lane can take many shapes and forms, but one thing is common to most human beings: the feeling of nostalgia.
What Is Nostalgia?
Although we all know the feeling, many of us are also aware of how difficult it is to put it into words: what is it that we feel when we’re being nostalgic?
The Cambridge dictionary defines nostalgia as “a feeling of pleasure and sometimes slight sadness at the same time as we think about things that happened in the past”.
The term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician, Johannes Hoffer, to describe a psychological disorder among soldiers who were in a fragile mental state, longing to return home. In the Greek language, the term nostos is used to describe a homecoming journey, while algos refers to pain.
The first known record of such an emotion was recorded by a blind poet 2800 years ago - while wandering through Greece, Homer describes Odysseus’ return to his homeland after 20 years of absence.
Throughout history, this ambivalent emotion has changed many faces: while it was considered a mental disease and a psychiatric disorder in the past, the concept has evolved to denote a positive emotional state and a coping mechanism in the present.
Today, we no longer view nostalgia as a state of disorder, but rather as a temporary emotion of both pleasant and sad longing for something that was and will never be the same again.
Coping with the Bittersweet Symphony
Because it's a bittersweet symphony, that's life.
How to cope with the bittersweet symphony, the pleasant suffering, the tears that fall over smiles? Or, as the Portuguese, the experts on the topic, say, saudage, a state of nostalgic and profound melancholic longing for an absent object of love, colored with the awareness that the object might never be there with us again? It seems like nostalgia has a lot to do with both grieving and loss, but also dignity, beauty, and love.
Over the past several years, nostalgia has become one of the central research topics at university departments across the globe. The main vehicle for this interest is social disturbances that cause major migrations of people towards “less-disturbed” western areas. Collecting narratives about wars, life before disturbances, personal stories, stories of peaceful or forced migrations has become a way of preserving, respecting, and cherishing direct or indirect victims’ stories.
People who migrate often long for their homes, regardless of whether they can return there or not. However, you don’t have to have a turbulent past, forcefully migrate to another country, or experience trauma to feel like nostalgia is eating up a lot of your psychological space.
At times, we can get so deeply entangled in nostalgia that we start denying the present. We can become attached to the beauty of the past with such intensity that we feel like that kind of happiness will never happen to us again.
This way of thinking is also dangerous, as it doesn’t allow us to grow: it keeps us anchored in the past. What we need to do in such situations is find the strength to let go and treat the past as what it is–past, a nice memory. What awaits is our reality, and we need to face it even when it’s not pretty. Being honest and direct with yourself and engaging in your reality is the only way to improve it.
The Perfect Politician
All the mentioned research on nostalgia points to one thing: nostalgia can be empowering if we know how to use it. As psychologist Constantine Sedikides, one of the researchers on nostalgia, said in an interview for The Guardian, nostalgia is “the perfect politician”. It connects the present with the past and optimistically points into the future.
According to him, there are hundreds of research papers revealing that nostalgia is some kind of an inbuilt neurological defense mechanism. It serves the purpose of protecting us against negative, hard-to-cope-with thoughts and situations.
This research opens up a new perspective on nostalgia and longing: it’s a kind of compensation for uncomfortable states and the feeling of uncanny. Nostalgia can help us combat meaningless or temporal discontinuity, often experienced among young adults. Nostalgia has the potential to help us feel safe and connected, as it can be a vehicle of homeostasis instead of uncertainty. But, this depends on how we perceive it.
Similar to many other things in life, the way we frame or approach things shapes the way they feel or work for us. That’s what we call the mindset.
The research he conducted in 2012 revealed that people are more likely to feel nostalgic in a cold than in a warm room, and the participants also reported that these emotions made the room seem warmer. After publishing this paper, a concentration camp survivor contacted him and told his story, saying that this was exactly what they did: they used memories of better times to alter the perception of the current situation and everything that was happening, and that this process was at times crucial for surviving.
Furthermore, nostalgia seems to promote prosocial and altruistic behaviors, as experiments have revealed that people with induced nostalgia were more likely to engage in volunteer or community work, as well as form more intimate relations with strangers and think more freely.
It seems like there is a lot to how we perceive the role of nostalgia in our lives and whether we use this human ability to exist in a state of bitter and sweet, painful and pleasuring ambivalence, in a good way.
What Can I Do for Myself?
Now that we’ve reviewed the existential role of nostalgia in our lives and that it can serve as a good coping mechanism, one question remains: what can we do to improve our experience? How can we still enjoy nostalgia, but also rediscover, and look forward to the future?
Here are a couple of things to have in mind.
Today’s Joy Might Be Tomorrow’s Nostalgia
Living in the now, mindfully and consciously, enjoying “peak experience” moments that arise spontaneously when we’re alone or with people we love is the way to create new memories to enjoy in the future. Such an approach helps us build personal capacities and optimism in regard to both present and future experiences.
Appreciation and Gratitude
When nostalgic emotions arise, this is an excellent opportunity to feel grateful for the amazing experiences and beautiful moments we’ve had. Change is inevitable, and gratitude is one of the healthiest ways of dealing with it. Thinking gratefully about your past can be a great motivator to think about the things you are grateful for today.
The Past Is the Past but Life Is Now
If you ever feel like your past experiences and memories are becoming overwhelming, remember that this is a good thing: you have lived a good life before, but you’re also doing the best you can today.
To help you regain the sense of control in the present times and remind you that your life is as amazing as it used to be (if perhaps just slightly different), we’ve compiled a collection of 130 inspiring illustrations and word art by the artist Real Fun, Wow called Life Is Right Now.
Set yourself free from old narratives, and simply enjoy the memories. New stories and an even newer and more amazing ‘you’ are just around the corner.
We all get nostalgic sometimes. That’s part of what makes us human: what stands behind our tendency to sometimes recall beautiful moments from our past is our ability to be self-aware and to give meaning to things.
Sad as it might be, we shouldn’t let nostalgia overwhelm us and live our life for us. We can use this complex emotion, this state of elevated consciousness about our existence to achieve inner integration, as well as to connect our past experiences with the current moment, and use them to optimistically look into the future.