Do you indulge in sentimental memories? Do you enjoy perusing photo collections or listening to old songs on the radio, YouTube, or other popular media? If so, don’t feel embarrassed - social scientists now say that nostalgia isn’t only harmless but actually enhances our wellbeing. The more emotionally healthy we are, the likelier it is that we feel sentimental easily.
Nostalgia certainly wasn’t always viewed this way. It comes from ancient Greek, combining “nostos” (to return home or to your native land) and “algos” (referring to “pain, suffering, or grief.") The word was created back in 1688 by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer who discussed it in his medical treatise. He used nostalgia to describe the severe emotional distress of Swiss soldiers stationed far from home - whose symptoms included sadness, diminished senses, and physical weakness.
For centuries afterward, nostalgia had a medical — and basically abnormal — connotation linked to homesickness. For a while, some medical researchers even suggested that nostalgia was somehow peculiar to Swiss people. Then in the 1950s, American social scientists began to change their opinion. They no longer regarded nostalgia as a type of homesickness but as pleasant self-indulgence about the past. Undoubtedly this shift related to the enormous impact of TV - popular shows like Wagon Train and Death Valley Days celebrated the American Old West and Frontier. Others like Lassie cast a warm glow on the traditional American family farm, which was rapidly disappearing across the continent. It’s no surprise that American Baby Boomers — raised on such entertaining fare — were the first generation to grow up with nostalgia as a positive feature of day-to-day living.
Today, positive psychology has shed light on the role of nostalgia in our lives. Here’s what we know - first, that most people become nostalgic mainly about their teenage and young adult years, rather than their childhood. Perhaps it’s because we fondly recall our first, awakening sense of freedom and life’s great possibilities, as well as romantic stirrings. We also know that nostalgic moods are often triggered by our senses - especially relating to songs and scents. In America, vintage cars and reminiscing about professional sports often put men in nostalgic moods. On the other hand, women react more to mementos associated with particular events involving family or friends. For many Americans, major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, trigger happy memories.
Researchers are actively studying nostalgia in India today. In a collaborative effort by Dr Divya Singhal at the Goa Institute of Management, results showed that songs from old Hindi films evoked nostalgia among young Indian consumers (especially if sung by female singers).
An intriguing investigation by Dr Ranjan Bandyopadhyay in America found that Bollywood movies were an important source of nostalgia among Indian immigrants to Britain. These films also glamorized contemporary India for their children and motivated them to visit their ancestral land. In a study-in-progress led by Dr Varsha Jain at Mudra Institute of Communications (MICA) in Ahmedabad, ad-evoked nostalgia revealed five dimensions: Personal memories, positive emotions, negative emotions, physiological reactions, and collective nostalgia. The researchers noted that because of India’s unique culture, nostalgia often encompassed both individual and collective memories.
Most importantly, nostalgia has qualities that benefit our mental health. An international team of researchers led by Dr Xinyue Zhou in China found that it helped people feel more connected with family and friends - leading to fewer feelings of loneliness. These findings affirmed an earlier study led by Dr Tim Wildschut at England’s University of Southampton. Both researchers contend that people with high resilience — that is, the ability to bounce back quickly from stress — are skillful in using nostalgia to feel happy. Of course, it probably isn’t healthy to overindulge in nostalgia. Focusing too much on past memories can prevent us from strengthening current relationships and living fully in the present. But in moderation nostalgia can wonderfully enhance our sense of closeness to others. To make use of it beneficially, name three songs that put you in a nostalgic mood. For each song what’s your strongest memory? Describe the circumstances and people with you in this memory. How can you build on these memories for greater happiness in your life?
Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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