What was your favorite memory of the holiday season? For me, one stood out. Last week, I attended a party thrown by an old high school friend. The party was fabulous — I spent the night catching up with high school friends I’d lost touch with over the years. One of the best parts was introducing my high school boyfriend to my husband. It was just a scream.
On the way home, though, a strange sensation washed over me. Because I’m a psychologist, and because my second book is about self-awareness, it seemed professionally irresponsible not to try to understand this feeling.
At first, it wasn’t easy to pin down. But I soon figured it out. It was nostalgia. My mind was flooded with sweet, sad high school memories (for context, many people hated high school, Glee-style, but my experience was the exact opposite. I was lucky to go to a school where good grades and theater made you “cool” — otherwise I would have been in big trouble).
The irony of my feelings didn’t escape me. Just a few days before the new year, I felt hopelessly stuck in the past. This is probably bad, I thought, but decided to seek the answer in the science just to be sure. Imagine me coming home from the party and pouring over Google Scholar, and you might grasp my true level of geekiness.
Nostalgia: What’s the Deal?
The term “nostalgia” was first coined in the 1600s by a Swiss doctor to describe immigrants’ homesick feelings (the word is Greek: nostos = return home, algos = pain). And for hundreds of years, nostalgia got a terrible rap: It was called a “neurological disease … of demonic cause” and a “repressive compulsive disorder.”
Thankfully, the way we think about nostalgia has evolved. A more modern definition, courtesy of Google Dictionary, is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically … with happy personal associations.”
On average, people experience nostalgia between one and four times per week — I’d wager it’s more frequent around the holidays. Individually, we relive childhood memories, think of people no longer in our lives, or hear songs that instantly transport us back in time. Collectively, we’re inundated with 2014 retrospectives in magazines and on TV. (Fun fact: This “collective nostalgia” actually brings people closer together.)
Now, prepare to be surprised: Scientists have discovered that nostalgia is actually good for us! According to Constantine Sedikides, a psychology professor who’s cornered the market on this research, nostalgia is “absolutely central to the human experience.”
Sedikides and his colleagues have shown that nostalgia can help make us less lonely, less bored, less existentially anxious, and even less money hungry. It also can make us more optimistic about the future. When researchers asked students to recall nostalgic events, they used more optimistic words, and felt more positively, than when remembering ordinary events. How could this be? Reliving positive memories makes us feel more connected to others and better about ourselves.
Every year around this time, I can fall prey to terrifying thoughts — sometimes the blank slate of a new year can feel just as scary as it is invigorating: What if I can’t sustain the success of my business this year? What if I inadvertently let down all my friends and family? What if my next book is horrible?
Enter nostalgia. My wonderful memories of high school immediately reminded me of three things:
(A) I got good grades because I worked hard and never gave up — I’ll use that same drive to keep growing my business in 2015.
(B) I had a group of friends who I would do anything for — I’ll draw on that same feeling to support the people I care about in 2015.
(C) I fell in love with writing early in life and realized I was pretty darn good at it — I’ll remember that joy, and draw on that success, to make my next book my best one yet.
Three Ways to Harnass The Power of Nostalgia in 2015
- Access your nostalgia bank. The next time you’re afraid, lonely, or bored, try to remember a time when you felt confident, loved, or captivated. We are more likely to experience nostalgia when we’re feeling down, so stay aware of your emotions. And when you make a withdrawal from your nostalgia bank, try not to compare those memories with your present situation (that’s when things can get tricky). Instead, simply enjoy this sweet, comparison-free memory.
- Bolster your self-esteem. One of the reasons nostalgia is adaptive is that it can boost our self-esteem. The next time you’re tackling a new project or feeling totally overwhelmed, remember a time in your life when you were wildly successful in the face of a challenge. You’re that same person now — probably a better one — and you can take whatever life throws at you!
- Live your life fully. Have you ever realized — in real time — that you’re living a moment you’ll be nostalgic about in the future? There’s actually a term for this: anticipatory nostalgia. Typically, the more surprising and positive an event is, the more likely it is to become a nostalgic memory. So in 2015, use this as an excuse to live your life fully and make each moment great — then deposit that memory into your nostalgia bank for later use.
Ironically, as we look ahead to the new year, drawing from our past can help us achieve our goals and live a happier, more fulfilling life. To paraphrase Dr. Sedikides, nostalgia gives us meaning. It reminds us of our roots. It improves how we see ourselves. And it gives us the courage to move forward.
So move forward, but never forget your past, and you just might win in 2015.