The science behind nostalgia

The Science of Sentimentality: How Nostalgia Can Help Us

“I am suddenly consumed by nostalgia for the little girl who was me, who loved the fields and believed in God, who spent winter days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew and sucking menthol cough drops, who could keep a secret.” — Audrey Niffenegger

We all share a strange relationship with memory.

Bits and pieces of the past tend to float to the surface when we least expect it. Sometimes, they are unwanted reminders. Upon recognition, we immediately push those memories down again, locking the door behind them, wiping away the trace of dust left behind on our hands.

But most of the time, we wistfully welcome that unannounced visitor. We sit with nostalgia in our kitchens, reminiscing over a coffee about that cross-country road trip we took when we were nineteen. We had almost forgotten about running out of gas in Utah, or the rabbit that somehow got trapped inside the diner in Arizona.

The flood gates of memory never open half-way. Remembering one distinct moment seems to cause the entire world surrounding it to return with an overwhelming clarity. We recognize how dramatically we have changed over the years, but the emotions that come back feel remarkably familiar.

We are constantly reminded to live in the present, to practice mindfulness, to have no regrets or hangups about what has already happened. We feel guilt for not being completely contented with how things currently are. We tell ourselves that by longing for the past, we have somehow failed in the present.

So how is it possible that nostalgia could play a healthy role in our lives?

A study regarding the emotional and psychological consequences of nostalgia came to a fascinating conclusion: nostalgia actually inspires feelings of optimism about the future. By recalling our most beloved memories, we are subconsciously reminding ourselves that we are capable of accomplishing great things, of growing beyond our limits, and of being loved.

Nostalgia assists us during painful times

Think back to one of your happiest memories: in that moment, were you wishing to be somewhere else? Probably not. Our greatest times occur when we are completely satisfied by the present. We beg for that moment to last forever, but it never does. It’s one of those hard and fast rules of life.

The science behind nostalgiaInstead, we get to keep it as a memory. We carry around reminders of it in the pockets of our everyday lives. We keep crumpled and faded photos of it in our wallets. We listen to songs that sound like it, we wear perfumes that smell like it.

During our worst times, we forget what that exploding happiness felt like. In our loneliness, we cannot fathom what it felt like to be so connected to another human. We lose touch with the sense of freedom we felt in our youth. Our self-esteem suffers and we doubt what we are truly capable of.

Nostalgia is a teacher that points us backwards not to torture us, but to show us how far we have come. We should allow ourselves to get swept up in the beauty of the past so we can move forward just as passionately.

Because as long as we’re still on earth, the game ain’t over yet.