“Those were the days my friends
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way”
Mary Hopkin 1969
Winner of the Eurovision Song Contest
Last week a photo popped up in one of my WhatsApp groups with the question, “Hey look where I am, do you remember the great time we had here?”
I looked at the image of a building and saw nothing that looked familiar and replied, “Sorry I don’t think I was there…”
But then others in the group said, “oh yes, that’s where we sat around a fire pit to share stories” and “wasn’t that when X and Y were expecting?”. Other pictures were then shared and at last, the memory returned; we were reminiscing about the time we spent on retreat a few years back. A magical time associated with many warm memories of the people and the activities we took part in. (Though I still don’t remember that building!).
Nostalgia. Love it.
What takes you back to a particular event or time spent with friends?
Is it music, photos, or certain smells?
I’ve got a couple of cardboard boxes of old vinyl records (and no you can’t have them) that remind me of the music I grew up listening to, and I’ve still got my black shiny skintight disco pants I shall never throw out, even though today I can’t get them above my knees!! Or the tiny silver ring gifted by a former boyfriend that I never wear but enjoy having as a reminder of times and relationships past.
Dial telephones, manual typewriters, old fashioned cash registers – we seek them out as reminders of our past. We go to fancy dress parties in clothes we associate with a certain era and hairdos that should never have been allowed out in public. We share times of the past and laugh at some of the things we said or did. And we’ve become especially fond of those “good old times” during the Pandemic.
Why have we become so fond of those “good old times”?
Because those feelings of nostalgia, those warm memories of times past help us to deal with the current pain, sadness, grief and trauma associated with living at the time of uncertainty, stress and anxiety. It’s a form of self-soothing that, unlike comfort eating, doesn’t cause us to put on weight. It enhances those feelings of social connectedness, of having a sense of purpose and meaning.
In other words, it’s a great resource for our psychological health and wellbeing.
It helps us to regulate negative emotional states.
That’s why bread-makers have sold out and YouTube videos on how to make sourdough bread or print your own tie-dye kaftan have become so popular.
It highlights a desire for things to return to how they were. Though in some instances it’s also provided a window of opportunity to reconnect with the simpler pleasures of life and to consciously choose to slow down.
The term comes from the Greek, “nostos” meaning home and “algos” meaning pain and was first coined by a Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer. He described it as an affliction he had observed in Swiss mercenaries, as a cerebral disease of demonic cause (!) manifesting as an obsessive longing for home, loss of appetite, palpitations, insomnia and anxiety. Later the Swiss army believed it was caused by the relentless clanging of cowbells in the Alps damaging the soldier’s brains.
Today it’s described as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
Nostalgia is useful to us because research has shown how reflecting on past experiences and things motivate us to think about and plan our future. When reflecting on happy past events the brain secretes more dopamine and serotonin making you feel more calm, happy, and holds a more positive outlook for what’s next.
In summary, nostalgia is good for us because:
It increases hope for our future
Reflecting on personally meaningful events from the past isn’t just for Granny. We can feel nostalgic at any age. It’s good for our wellbeing, increases our level of optimism, sense of purpose and makes us ready to take action for our future.
It inspires us to take action and be more social
Being more hopeful for the future motivates us to engage in healthier behaviours. There has been a huge upsurge recently in the desire and intention to make self-care and lifestyle a more important feature of our lives. We’re more driven to seek ways to connect more and more effectively – because of our recent experience of lockdown and the associated loneliness.
It’s commonly a shared experience
It’s currently believed that nostalgia is triggered as a regulatory response when we are exposed to ongoing negative emotions and times of challenge such as when living through a pandemic.
My mother-in-law used to regale us with tales from her childhood (that we’d all heard countless times before) but she clearly found great joy in sharing her adventures and I shall never forget her story of how she rescued the family pet Labrador from the ocean by swimming to shore with the dog on her back. It must have been a somewhat furry, heavy and scratchy experience!
Our close friends love to dig out and share old video clips of our shared adventures driving into the outback when the kids were small. (Did I really have a perm back then? What was I thinking?!)
We put together photo albums, slideshows and keep journals to record our lives. We share funny moments, stories and memories to bring together greater intimacy with whoever we’re sharing them with, helping the listener or observer gain a greater understanding of our social (and emotional) history and deepen relationships.
Nostalgia is not about staying stuck in the past. By accessing meaningful memories, nostalgia helps us approach our future with greater confidence. And like anything, being too anchored in the past isn’t always healthy. If you want to keep the office fax machine because it triggers warm fuzzy feelings of the messages it was used to send that’s fine, but if it’s because you don’t trust these new-fangled technologies designed to control our minds, perhaps it’s time to loosen that chin strap of nostalgia a bit more.
What nostalgic items have you got lurking in the back of your wardrobe or in the shoe box under your bed?
What has your past taught you and how will you use that to prepare for your future?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.