What exactly is nostalgia?
The word itself is formed of the Greek νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain” or “ache”. However, in contemporary use, the word doesn’t necessarily mean a painful yearning for home. Nostalgia is actually one of my favourite feelings. Although likened by many to a melancholy, I always feel it as a positive thing. It is a remembrance of the past, especially fond memories associated with youth or childhood. It always reminds me of the life I have been fortunate enough to have lived so far.
I felt it acutely this dreary English morning when I watched a Youtube slideshow of pictures from the Laos part of my six-month travelling trip when I was a young man. The images of myself and travel buddies engaged in exploration and fun activities in the bright Laotian sunshine brought about pangs of longing which were hard to ignore. That entire trip still means so much to me that I am undertaking a project to digitalize my journal of the time into a novel-length travel memoir called Transiting.
A more concise definition of nostalgia is ‘a sentimental longing for a period of time in the past’ which is definitely what I felt today. I watched the images stream past accompanied by Xavier Rudd‘s song Whirlpool (itself a moving and poignant lamentation), and I was filled with nostalgic reflection. Subsequently, I felt gratitude that I had had the opportunity to go on that trip at all, itself only possible because of the circumstances of my family. Then I started to think more concretely about the psychological and even social benefits of nostalgia.
The benefits of nostalgia
On a personal level nostalgia can increase one’s mood and generate feelings of heightened emotion. The important thing when experiencing nostalgia is not to get caught up in wistful thoughts of how things may have been better in the past. By enhancing positive feelings nostalgia can be connected to strengthening coping strategies and implementing them as we move through life. Thus, it can increase mental support in challenging times and be used as a buffer against negativity.
Regarding personal development, nostalgia can make people more willing to engage in growth-oriented behaviours. By recognizing what life has been like in the past people can imagine how it might be better in the future. I have said elsewhere that believing in the future is powerful. Through association with these practices, nostalgia encourages individuals to challenge negative self-perception. They can view themselves to be growing, changing, progressing and developing people, which is an overwhelmingly positive way to conceive of oneself.
Nostalgia can also be used as a way of increasing social connectedness. Nostalgic reflection can remind one of the importance that other people have had at previous times in life. It may even serve as a reminder to reach out to people who have grown distant due to changes in lifestyle and/or geography. Therefore, even though it is considered by many as a minor emotion, nostalgia has a strong restorative function in terms of social bonds.
Deriving meaning from reflection
By reflecting fondly on past events, one is able to create meaning, a very reason for living. One’s own sense of meaning and purpose in life can be reinforced by nostalgia; individuals can learn what is important to them through having nostalgic feelings. In terms of self-awareness and personal discovery, the possibilities of nostalgic reflection are unrivalled. This is because nostalgia is such a deeply personal emotion.
Most importantly, it serves to protect against threats to self-esteem by breaking the connection between a lack of meaning and one’s own well-being. Overall, we shouldn’t be worried about engaging in practices that evoke nostalgia and should see it as a pleasant emotion that can be worked with to achieve the positive benefits mentioned above.