Why Nostalgia and Reminiscing is Good for You

May 2024

Tags:

Expert Advice

In his new book Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life, Dr. Clay Rutledge delves into the profound impact nostalgia can have on our overall well-being. The book outlines how leveraging nostalgia can be a catalyst for positive change. Dr. Rutledge contends that embracing nostalgia can boost motivation, counteract loneliness, foster deeper social connections, ignite creativity, and provide a means to overcome stress. His perspective extends beyond personal benefits, emphasizing the potential for nostalgia to be harnessed as a force for good in the broader social context. In "Past Forward," Dr. Clay Rutledge invites readers on a transformative journey, encouraging them to embrace nostalgia not as a mere reflection on the past, but as a dynamic force that propels individuals towards a more meaningful and purposeful life.

Life is full of change. And hopefully, it involves personal growth in which we learn lessons that help us become better versions of ourselves. But we also want stability. We want to feel like we know who we are and can maintain that core self-concept that defines us. Self-continuity is that feeling of stability. And nostalgia helps us maintain it and restore it when it is threatened. When life feels uncertain or we feel lost in some way, we can turn to nostalgia for guidance. Nostalgic memories help remind us of what is most important in our lives. And this helps us identify and pursue goals that restore self-continuity and, ultimately, the belief that we are living meaningful and agentic lives.

Nostalgia is autobiographical in nature

Nostalgia is a cognitive and emotional experience that involves mentally revisiting personally meaningful past experiences. There are different types of nostalgia but much of it is autobiographical in nature. That is, when we feel nostalgic, we are often thinking about events from our own lives. Nostalgia is also emotionally complex. It often sparks feelings of loss or sadness. But these negative feelings tend to be far outweighed by positive emotions. Nostalgia is also very social. Nearly all nostalgic memories involve experiences with family, friends, and others who have meaningfully impacted our lives. And of course, nostalgia has a cultural dimension in that it typically implicates traditions, rituals, rites of passage, and collective experiences that people find meaningful.

In short, nostalgic memories are about the cherished life experiences that help people create their self-story and position that story within a broader social and cultural story.

Nostalgia restores us today, while guiding us to a better tomorrow

Nostalgia offers many benefits. When I first started conducting research on nostalgia about two decades ago, I hypothesized that nostalgia functions as a psychological defense resource that helps people comfort themselves when dealing with thoughts or experiences that cause emotional distress. My colleagues and I found quite a bit of evidence supporting this idea. For instance, when people feel like life lacks meaning, they tend to become more nostalgic, which increases a sense of meaning in life. More broadly, we have found that nostalgia counters all sorts of negative psychological states. Nostalgia has a restorative effect. It helps stabilize us when we are going through a difficult time.

However, years after those early studies, we started to discover that nostalgia is much more than a psychological defense. It actually has motivational power. In many of our studies, we have research participants write about a nostalgic experience and how it makes them feel. I started to notice that quite a few people used future-oriented words such as “hopeful” and “inspired” when describing how nostalgia makes them feel. This provided clues that nostalgia doesn’t just comfort people, it energizes them to boldly and optimistically move forward in life.

We then started conducting research to test this possibility and indeed found that having people spend several minutes reflecting on a nostalgic memory increases feelings of optimism and self-confidence and it makes them feel motivated to pursue the goals they find meaningful. I now think of nostalgia as more of a future-oriented experience. Yes, nostalgia involves reflecting on the past, but it motivates people to strive to build a better future, and not just for themselves. For instance, nostalgia increases prosocial behavior such as charitable giving.

A man swings on an orange swingset under a bright sky filled with fluffly clouds.
Photo by Vika Strawberrika

Nostalgia can be experienced solo, but improves social health when experienced with others

There are lots of ways to tap into the benefits of nostalgia. Even something as simple as listening to music that makes you nostalgic can boost wellbeing and energize you. But I think deeper, more contemplative and creative activities are especially useful. Writing, scrapbooking, and other artistic or creative passions that involve seeking wisdom and inspiration from meaningful past experiences can really help us live more intentional lives, connect with others, and make old ideas fresh and relevant for current and future challenges.

I would also encourage people to engage in nostalgic activities that involve other people. Sharing our meaningful memories with others helps us cultivate new relationships and deepen existing ones. It builds trust and it also helps us create new memories. Also, our research finds that nostalgia makes people more socially confident and motivated to spend time with others so nostalgia is a very useful tool for improving social health.

If someone expresses that they don’t want to revisit or share a memory, we should respect that. But by asking people to share nostalgic memories, you are typically going to safely avoid causing psychological distress because nostalgic memories - even those that involve negative emotions - are memories that people enjoy revisiting and sharing.

Humans are storytellers. It is how we learn about the world and each other. Sharing our stories helps us connect with others more deeply. Our personal stories weave us into a broader social and cultural story.

Nostalgia can be created with intention

In addition to the normal nostalgic activities we frequently engage in such as looking at old photos on our phones, listening to our favorite old songs, pursuing hobbies that help us feel connected to our past, and talking about fond memories with family and friends, I think it is worth asking yourself nostalgia-related questions about the future.

When making decisions about how to spend your time, ask yourself, what kinds of memories do I want to create? How can I live a life that I will be satisfied with and proud of in the future? And how can the past help? What guidance can my most cherished memories provide for making decisions about present and future priorities and goals?  I would also encourage people to focus more on really savoring experiences they find meaningful. This will help them create future nostalgic memories.

Dr. Clay Routledge stands outside on a fall day.
Dr. Clay Routledge

About Clay Routledge

Dr. Clay Routledge is a leading expert in existential psychology and the Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute. He is also the co-editor of Profectus, a web-based magazine focused on human progress and flourishing.

Next up: Why Your Brain Loves a Great Story

Tags:

Expert Advice

Why Nostalgia and Reminiscing is Good for You

Clay Routledge

May 2024

In his new book Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life, Dr. Clay Rutledge delves into the profound impact nostalgia can have on our overall well-being. The book outlines how leveraging nostalgia can be a catalyst for positive change. Dr. Rutledge contends that embracing nostalgia can boost motivation, counteract loneliness, foster deeper social connections, ignite creativity, and provide a means to overcome stress. His perspective extends beyond personal benefits, emphasizing the potential for nostalgia to be harnessed as a force for good in the broader social context. In "Past Forward," Dr. Clay Rutledge invites readers on a transformative journey, encouraging them to embrace nostalgia not as a mere reflection on the past, but as a dynamic force that propels individuals towards a more meaningful and purposeful life.

Life is full of change. And hopefully, it involves personal growth in which we learn lessons that help us become better versions of ourselves. But we also want stability. We want to feel like we know who we are and can maintain that core self-concept that defines us. Self-continuity is that feeling of stability. And nostalgia helps us maintain it and restore it when it is threatened. When life feels uncertain or we feel lost in some way, we can turn to nostalgia for guidance. Nostalgic memories help remind us of what is most important in our lives. And this helps us identify and pursue goals that restore self-continuity and, ultimately, the belief that we are living meaningful and agentic lives.

Nostalgia is autobiographical in nature

Nostalgia is a cognitive and emotional experience that involves mentally revisiting personally meaningful past experiences. There are different types of nostalgia but much of it is autobiographical in nature. That is, when we feel nostalgic, we are often thinking about events from our own lives. Nostalgia is also emotionally complex. It often sparks feelings of loss or sadness. But these negative feelings tend to be far outweighed by positive emotions. Nostalgia is also very social. Nearly all nostalgic memories involve experiences with family, friends, and others who have meaningfully impacted our lives. And of course, nostalgia has a cultural dimension in that it typically implicates traditions, rituals, rites of passage, and collective experiences that people find meaningful.

In short, nostalgic memories are about the cherished life experiences that help people create their self-story and position that story within a broader social and cultural story.

Nostalgia restores us today, while guiding us to a better tomorrow

Nostalgia offers many benefits. When I first started conducting research on nostalgia about two decades ago, I hypothesized that nostalgia functions as a psychological defense resource that helps people comfort themselves when dealing with thoughts or experiences that cause emotional distress. My colleagues and I found quite a bit of evidence supporting this idea. For instance, when people feel like life lacks meaning, they tend to become more nostalgic, which increases a sense of meaning in life. More broadly, we have found that nostalgia counters all sorts of negative psychological states. Nostalgia has a restorative effect. It helps stabilize us when we are going through a difficult time.

However, years after those early studies, we started to discover that nostalgia is much more than a psychological defense. It actually has motivational power. In many of our studies, we have research participants write about a nostalgic experience and how it makes them feel. I started to notice that quite a few people used future-oriented words such as “hopeful” and “inspired” when describing how nostalgia makes them feel. This provided clues that nostalgia doesn’t just comfort people, it energizes them to boldly and optimistically move forward in life.

We then started conducting research to test this possibility and indeed found that having people spend several minutes reflecting on a nostalgic memory increases feelings of optimism and self-confidence and it makes them feel motivated to pursue the goals they find meaningful. I now think of nostalgia as more of a future-oriented experience. Yes, nostalgia involves reflecting on the past, but it motivates people to strive to build a better future, and not just for themselves. For instance, nostalgia increases prosocial behavior such as charitable giving.

A man swings on an orange swingset under a bright sky filled with fluffly clouds.
Photo by Vika Strawberrika

Nostalgia can be experienced solo, but improves social health when experienced with others

There are lots of ways to tap into the benefits of nostalgia. Even something as simple as listening to music that makes you nostalgic can boost wellbeing and energize you. But I think deeper, more contemplative and creative activities are especially useful. Writing, scrapbooking, and other artistic or creative passions that involve seeking wisdom and inspiration from meaningful past experiences can really help us live more intentional lives, connect with others, and make old ideas fresh and relevant for current and future challenges.

I would also encourage people to engage in nostalgic activities that involve other people. Sharing our meaningful memories with others helps us cultivate new relationships and deepen existing ones. It builds trust and it also helps us create new memories. Also, our research finds that nostalgia makes people more socially confident and motivated to spend time with others so nostalgia is a very useful tool for improving social health.

If someone expresses that they don’t want to revisit or share a memory, we should respect that. But by asking people to share nostalgic memories, you are typically going to safely avoid causing psychological distress because nostalgic memories - even those that involve negative emotions - are memories that people enjoy revisiting and sharing.

Humans are storytellers. It is how we learn about the world and each other. Sharing our stories helps us connect with others more deeply. Our personal stories weave us into a broader social and cultural story.

Nostalgia can be created with intention

In addition to the normal nostalgic activities we frequently engage in such as looking at old photos on our phones, listening to our favorite old songs, pursuing hobbies that help us feel connected to our past, and talking about fond memories with family and friends, I think it is worth asking yourself nostalgia-related questions about the future.

When making decisions about how to spend your time, ask yourself, what kinds of memories do I want to create? How can I live a life that I will be satisfied with and proud of in the future? And how can the past help? What guidance can my most cherished memories provide for making decisions about present and future priorities and goals?  I would also encourage people to focus more on really savoring experiences they find meaningful. This will help them create future nostalgic memories.

Dr. Clay Routledge stands outside on a fall day.
Dr. Clay Routledge

About Clay Routledge

Dr. Clay Routledge is a leading expert in existential psychology and the Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute. He is also the co-editor of Profectus, a web-based magazine focused on human progress and flourishing.

Next up: Why Your Brain Loves a Great Story

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