Nostalgia as a Sentimental Tool: Are you ready to look back for looking ahead?

Nostalgia as a Sentimental Tool: Are you ready to look back for looking ahead?

My name is Dhanishta and I am a writer who has recently started pursuing a Masters in Psychology. For me, writing means making sense of experience. I find myself often looking at life experiences through the lens of both psychology and written expression, trying a find a common ground.

Like many others, I have often longed for the relative security and simplicity of “the good old days”. Nostalgia — “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past” — seems just the right emotion today, as many of us grapple with the changes brought about by the pandemic and the new normal. It appears that nostalgia is a coping mechanism that helps many of us navigate these times.

At the onset of the global pandemic, the frequently imposed lockdowns gave me lots of time to reflect and reminiscence on the course that I wanted my life to take. I am a freelance writer, but had a yearning to delve deep into the human mind, and understand the subtle forces that shape our behaviour. I became fascinated with how nostalgia was becoming a tool for me to understand my own evolution. This prompted me to look into more organised research on nostalgia.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

It seemed surprising then, when I discovered that nostalgia was originally described by Johannes Hofer (a Swiss doctor, credited with coining this term) as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause”.

The term — a combination of the Greek nostos, or homecoming and algos, or pain — referred to homesickness, at the time mainly (and understandably) observed in soldiers. Treatments ranged from sending the affected back home to threatening them, and in some cases using leeches to draw out the negative emotion! This was way back in 1688 and of course, today we know better. What was considered a psychopathological condition, is now seen in a completely new light, and a positive one at that.

Nostalgia has its uses. It provides you with a crutch to navigate the past and emerge with a new understanding. Maybe, with some kind of healing and with some deeper knowledge about your own self. It could become a flashlight directing us towards the future. Here are some of the ways we can harness the power of nostalgia in our own lives.

Evoke the good times when you feel low

In the book, Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource, psychologist Clay Routledge sees nostalgia as a resource that people use to regulate distress when they experience negative states like loneliness or meaninglessness.

Whist engaging in nostalgia, most people experience a boost in mood, feelings of social connectedness, self-esteem, self-continuity, and perceptions of meaning in life. In short, the positive mental states that nostalgia invokes is reason enough for people to dip into it from time to time!

A study by the University of Southern California psychologist David Newman and colleagues indicated that people experienced nostalgia more when they were feeling sad than when they were feeling more upbeat. Since this was a correlational study (a study that establishes a link or relationship between two variables) it is not possible to determine the direction of this relationship. In other words, did a low mood lead people to seek nostalgia to feel better? Or did nostalgia evoke the low mood? Whilst we cannot say for sure which direction this relationship goes in, it does give us plenty of food for thought!

In my opinion, I believe that low mood may lead people to seek out events or aspects of their past which made them feel better. We all seek to maintain some kind of internal balance, and when our mental state is threatened, and we feel ‘down’ or low, it makes sense that we dip into the happier memories or simpler times of the past to feel a sense of balance and control.

This has some lessons for real life. On occasions when one feels down, a trip down the nostalgia lane could help! It may not alleviate the feeling of sadness completely, but it may soften the blow.

Foster emotional connection

Nostalgia could also be a bonding experience. Family, friends, and food are most likely to evoke nostalgic feelings, though music, pop culture, and books also come pretty close. These act as cues to ‘reminisce’ about past events.

Psychologist Clay Routledge and colleagues conducted a number of studies and found evidence to suggest that nostalgia helps to build strong relationships and “teams”. Nostalgic recollections made a group more likely to stick together for a common goal. In short, people who indulged in nostalgia were more committed to the group.

In order to harness nostalgic potential to foster bonding, you can try some of these things next time you’re in a gathering of family, friends, or co-workers. Maybe some of these activities will foster nostalgia and reconnect the group in a different way: a retro music playlist, looking at old photographs or videos, revisiting old memories in conversation, specific movies or songs, eating a specific food, going through past letters or journals and so on.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Unify the self

Nostalgia can help us unify the self. It helps define who we are and who we can be, by referencing who we were in the past. It helps us consolidate the past into the present, so that we perceive ourselves as whole.

All of us change over the years and indulging in nostalgia is a reminder of that journey. For some, it could be getting in touch with their authentic selves. For others, it could mean reliving just how much they have grown or changed. And this act in itself helps us create a unified sense of our present selves.

In midst of a recent lockdown, I once sat down and read through all my old journals, hoping to ‘feel good’. As I relived the past, so many things suddenly made sense. I could see how some childhood experiences shaped me, and how some of my current insecurities were rooted in the past. I felt in control of myself.

The experience made me revisit my love for psychology by signing up for a Masters course.

For me, a random nostalgic episode changed the course of my future.

Some of us may want to consciously use nostalgia as a tool to guide us into the future. If revelling in the beloved past can give us happiness, we could surely carry a bit of the magic further on! As we emerge stronger and more resilient, despite being scathed from the devastating impact of the pandemic, maybe a dose of nostalgia might just be the booster shot we need.