Why Nostalgia is Good for Your Mental Health

3 min
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Remember when the good old days were just so….nostalgic? Reminiscing over the past is something we love to do, but it can bring up all kinds of feelings. Happy memories might be clouded with sadness for what’s been lost, and less than happy memories can still bring pain after many years. We’re encouraged instead to focus on being present, to live more in the now. But some psychologists say that a bit of nostalgia is good for our mental health. So what’s the difference between dwelling on the past and enjoying the memories we have to the benefit of our wellbeing? Let’s remind ourselves.

What exactly is nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a sense of wistful remembrance of the past. It’s that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you think back to a particularly fun or happy period in your life. It might be triggered by a song, or a reminder of the trends and trappings of a past decade. You feel an affection or yearning for a time that you can’t go back to, and that in some ways seemed better than now. Even though it’s a relatively gentle feeling, nostalgia is a surprisingly powerful emotion – multi-million dollar advertising campaigns capitalize on it, and entire movie and TV franchises are built around collective nostalgia – we can even feel it for bygone eras that we didn’t live through.

Why is nostalgia good for me?

Nostalgia is so powerful because it is associated with the reward and emotional regulation regions of the brain. Research shows that the positive experience of nostalgia can alleviate feelings of loneliness and improve overall well-being. Nostalgia fosters a sense of connection to both the self, when positive memories remind us who we are, and to a wider community or culture, because reminiscing with others reinforces social bonds. This boosts self-esteem and a sense of meaning in life. Positive memories can be a great source of comfort, too, helping regulate distressing emotions to soothe the nervous system and improve mood. Tapping into nostalgic feelings can also help us feel more positive and hopeful for the future, playing into the cycle of positive affect and contributing to positive outcomes.

But what if I’m dwelling on the past?

There is, however, a subtle but important difference between reveling in nostalgia and ruminating on the past. Spending too much time dissociating from the present and yearning for a time that’s been and gone can be detrimental to mental health. Signs of an unhealthy attachment to the past might be intrusive thoughts, memories that you can’t seem to put aside and are experiencing daily, as well as feelings of anger or despair about how the way things are now don’t match up to “how they used to be”. This can lead to depression and anxiety. We also sometimes see the past through rose-tinted glasses, which can even be dangerous – politicians manipulate this to push regressive agendas.

Anything else I should know?

Neuroscientific research proves that memory isn’t particularly reliable, and the more we activate a memory, the more it can get distorted – this is known as memory reconsolidation. It means that while positive memories can get even more positive, which is good for enhancing the benefits of nostalgia, negative ones can elicit more negative feelings the more we engage with them. However, reconsolidation does mean that we can influence the emotional weight of our past experiences under the right conditions. So re-evaluating our more regrettable behaviors and experiences under a nostalgic lens – such as that feeling of “ah, to be young and dumb again” – can even override shame, anger, and grief. And that’s powerful medicine.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Nostalgia, reflection, brooding: Psychological benefits and autobiographical memory functions; Combating Loneliness With Nostalgia: Nostalgic Feelings Attenuate Negative Thoughts and Motivations Associated With Loneliness; Post-retrieval Distortions of Self-Referential Negative Memory: Valence Consistency Enhances Gist-Directed False, While Non-negative Interference Generates More Intrusive Updates; A Primer on Memory Reconsolidation and Its Psychotherapeutic Use as a Core process of Profound Change.

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