People Who Are Nostalgic Are Happier, Bigger-Hearted And More Optimistic

by John Haltiwanger

I've always felt a longing for the past, for people and places currently out of reach. Like a broken record, I get stuck in moments.

As I've grown up, I've tried to resist these sentiments. It's not healthy to dwell in the past; the present is what truly matters, or so we're told.

But no matter how hard I try, my mind slips into memories, or I begin imagining a visit to another place in time.

History, in a very broad sense, has always been inherently romantic to me. I've often dreamt about what it would it be like to live in eras long past.

I'm what you might call a dweller, history junky (nerd) and hopeless nostalgic. And I'm not sure if this will ever change.

There is certainly something to be said for concentrating on the present. If we focus too heavily on the past, or let our minds drift into anxiety over an unpredictable future, we end up missing out on the moment.

In the process, we become blind to the ways in which we are presently blessed, and we fail to see all of the wonderful things happening around us.

With that said, there is a great deal of evidence that nostalgia is actually good for our brains and overall outlook. So while it may be important to value the present, life is also about finding balance.

We can't completely ignore the past, as this goes against human nature and biology. Not to mention, it has a lot of valuable lessons to teach us.

In other words, for all of my brothers and sisters out there who constantly find themselves living in the past, there is hope for you yet.

Nostalgia is bittersweet.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It rises without warning, creeping up on us through pictures, music, movies and even smells.

It's much more than simply reminiscing; it's a convoluted wave of emotions and memories.

The term "nostalgia" was first introduced in the 17th century by Swiss physicians attempting to describe homesickness among soldiers.

It comes from the Greek words “nostos,” meaning home, and “algos,” meaning pain. So, when it comes down to it, we often feel nostalgic when we're looking for a sense of grounding or stability.

On average, people experience nostalgia about once a week. When you're in a tumultuous period of life, such as the confusing transition into adulthood, it's likely to occur even more frequently.

In other words, if you're in your 20s, and you can't stop thinking about the glory days of college, there's a psychological explanation.

Recalling the past is often painful. Regrets, failures and embarrassments flow in with remorseless fury. We're reminded of people absent from our lives or lingering feelings we wish were long gone.

Even warm memories can generate feelings of emptiness.

Such is the paradoxical nature of nostalgia. It's a bittersweet sentiment, leaving us feeling simultaneously joyous, yet hollow.

For these reasons nostalgia has often been characterized as something that's negative or somewhat self-indulgent. In actuality, it's quite beneficial if channeled in the right way.

Nostalgia is fatal to loneliness, anxiety and negativity.

Loneliness is a product of feeling isolated or disconnected, and it breeds pessimism.

Humans are innately social beings. Without community, it's difficult to remain positive.

Research has shown that when we're lonely, nostalgia can help restore a sense of worth, belonging and community.

There's even evidence nostalgia makes us more altruistic and charitable. This is likely do to the fact it helps cultivate feelings of connectedness.

Through nostalgia, we're reminded of the place we grew up, the unconditional love of family, the wondrous curiosity of childhood, the joy of laughter between friends, the electricity of romance and the epic beauty of the parts of the world we've been lucky enough to see.

As John Tierney puts it for the New York Times:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they're sharing nostalgic memories. Nostalgia does have its painful side, but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

Indeed, nostalgia might have bitter aspects to it, but it makes us happier and more positive overall.

Remembering the past inspires hope and confidence.

During periods of transition, nostalgia helps reinvigorate our self-esteem.

It's easy to feel discouraged or inadequate in new environments and scenarios, but nostalgic memories remind us of past accomplishments. We remember the many challenges we've overcome before and gain confidence in the process.

Dr. Constantine Sedikides, professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Southampton, has done extensive research on nostalgia in relation to psychology. Speaking with The Guardian, he argued nostalgia is vital to the human experience, stating:

In difficult situations it appears that nostalgia grounds you. It gives you a base on which to evaluate the present as a temporary state, and in doing so, it perhaps builds resilience.

Simply put, nostalgia helps us make sense of this wild ride we call life. It grants us perspective, reminding us nothing is permanent.

Through nostalgia, we learn to cherish the ups and downs that typify the human experience.

We study the past in order to comprehend the present. But we remember the past in order to believe in the future.

With that said, we can't benefit from nostalgia if we always compare the past to the present from a negative standpoint.

The value of the past lies in its ability to serve as a source of learning and enrichment. But when we begin to believe that nothing will be better than that which has already occurred, we dig ourselves into an almost insurmountable hole.

In essence, don't put the past on a pedestal. Learn from it. Look back on both the good and bad moments with fondness, and embrace the days to come.

As the poet Robert Frost once stated:

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on.

Life is a complicated composition of happy and sad moments occurring at varying degrees. All we can do is laugh at the absurdity of it all, rejoice in the fact we're breathing and keep moving forward.

Along the way, we can take a moment or two to look back and let our memories and experiences fill us with the warmth and strength to carry on.

Citations: Look back in joy the power of nostalgia (The Guardian), Feeling lonely Genes might be at fault (CNN), The Incredible Powers Of Nostalgia (Huffington Post), What Is Nostalgia Good For Quite a Bit Research Shows (New York Times ), Nostalgia Why it is good for you (BBC)