Let’s take a walk down memory lane

When citizens of Chicago were asked to share their favorite memories in a video tribute to the city, they fondly thought back to the good old days, eyes glazed and wistful[1]:

“My favorite memory would probably be Sunday morning, when my dad would play his music with this huge subwoofer. It would be like Billie Holiday or Super Tramp, with the sun streaming in the windows.”

“My favorite memory?… My mom holding me when I was a young child, on the deck of a boat, when we were coming from England immigrating to the [United] States. And showing me the whales.”

Watching the video with a swelling ballad in the background, it’s hard not to feel wistful yourself.

But we can’t stop watching. When something reminds us of the past, we end up walking down memory lane, even though we know it will fill us with longing and a sense of melancholy.

The average person indulges in nostalgia once or twice a week[2]. Why do we do this, when the feelings this dredges up are often so mixed?

It’s a good question. Nostalgia was initially classified in 1688 as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by Swiss doctor Johannes Hoffer. Even a century ago, nostalgia was still seen as a “mentally repressive compulsive disorder”[3]. The word “nostalgia” itself is derived from the Greek words “notro,” meaning home, and “algia,” meaning pain[4].

Despite the sad origins of nostalgia, research shows that nostalgia mostly acts as a stabilizing emotion[2,5].

We “nostalgize” the most during times of transition—as a young adult growing up and starting our first job, as a respected leader preparing for retirement, or as we face the prospect of losing a family member. We nostalgize during these times of uncertainty to feel loved, remember who we are, and re-discover a sense of belonging during times of turbulence. Nostalgia, in other words, helps us to cope with change[5,6].

These ideas have been tested experimentally[7]. For instance, one study asked participants to read a philosophical argument about the meaninglessness of their lives, which ended with this stirring conclusion:

“What is 68 years of one person’s rat-race compared to 5 billion years of history? We are no more significant than any other form of life in the universe.”

Afterward, participants reported feeling more nostalgic, as they turned to comforting memories as a way to defend against this existential threat.

This effect goes the other way as well: When participants wrote about a nostalgic memory before reading the philosopher’s essay, they were less likely to be convinced by the argument that their lives lacked meaning.

“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” the lead researcher, Clay Routledge, said[5,7]. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”

People report that they typically turn nostalgic because of a discomforting or saddening event, and feel better after being nostalgic[6]. Nostalgia seems to kick in just when we need a reminder of who we are and why we’re loved.

So, nostalgia has its benefits. But isn’t there a danger in looking back at the past a bit too fondly, with a “those were the days” mentality?

Perhaps. This is why researchers recommend instead focusing on the personal meaningfulness of our memories, rather than negatively comparing the present to them[5].

In other words, revel in the love, sense of self, and belongingness that these memories bring, and remember that it is the impermanence of such experiences that makes them so precious in the first place.

References

1. Galvea, K. (2011). Fifty people, one question. YouTube.

2. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 975.

3. Stevens, M. (2017). Take a Walk Down Memory Lane. It Can Be Healthy. New York Times.

4. Nostalgia [Def. 1]. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary.

5. Tierney, J. (2013). What is nostalgia good for? Quite a bit, research shows. New York Times.

6. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 975.

7. Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Hart, C. M., Juhl, J., Schlotz, W. (2011). The past makes the present meaningful: nostalgia as an existential resource. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 638.