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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Letting the Past Remind Us of What We Aren't Now

"Things ain't what they used to be and probably never was." 

~Will Rogers

Do you find yourself "living in the past"? Perhaps, like many others, you escape reality and mind travel to distant days when everything was "different," and in doing so, you find yourself crying and laughing over bygone fragments of remembrances. It seems as if many of us enjoy being sentimental, heartsick, old fools. Does waxing nostalgic serve any useful purpose?

American novelist and essayist Florence King poetically defined nostalgic thought: "True nostalgia is an ephemeral composition of disjointed memories."

These nostalgic feelings are often described as "bittersweet." That definition itself is a rather inconclusive oxymoron. Do people really enjoy entering the mental state of nostalgia and conjuring feelings from their past with vivid detail full of mixed emotions? Thinking about the events that evoke both pain and pleasure seems like meaningless mental self-torture. This view is not foreign to history.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, doctors classified nostalgia as a medical disease complete with symptoms including weeping, irregular heartbeat and anorexia. Then, by the 20th century, nostalgia was widely regarded as a psychiatric disorder, with symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression and was confined to a few groups (e.g. first year boarding students and immigrants). As waves of immigrants left their homes in Europe to come to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors called nostalgia “the immigrant psychosis.”

It is known now that nostalgia occurs in all cultures and among all age groups including children as young as 7 (who look back fondly on birthdays and vacations). Nostalgic thoughts will usually feature a person we are close to, a significant event or a place important to us. In addition, we play a starring role in our nostalgic scenes, although we are generally surrounded by family and friends.

The old view of nostalgia as unhealthy was empirically unsubstantiated. Doctors observed that nostalgia was accompanied by symptoms indicative of ill health (anxiety, for instance, and sadness) and assumed that nostalgia was the cause. Now, instead, they believe nostalgia is a response to distress, not the trigger. 

Only recently have psychologists begun focusing on the positive and potentially therapeutic aspects of nostalgia, report University of Southampton psychologist Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

(Sedikides et al. "Nostalgia: Past, Present, and Future." 
Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2008; 17)

According to Sedikides, most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing” — researchers distinguish it from reminiscing — helps them feel better.  

The work claims that nostalgia counteracts our effects of loneliness, by increasing perceptions of social support. In addition, that same study found that loneliness can trigger nostalgia. The research suggests that nostalgia can promote psychological health. Inducing nostalgia in a group of study volunteers resulted in overall positive feelings in this group, including higher self-esteem and an increase in the feeling of being loved and protected by others.

Another important function of nostalgia may be in providing a link between our past and present selves - that is, nostalgia may provide us with a positive view of the past and this could help to give us a greater sense of continuity and meaning to our lives.

The usefulness of nostalgia seems to vary with age, according to Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England. She and her colleagues have found that nostalgia levels tend to be high among young adults, then dip in middle age and rise again during old age. They believe that nostalgia may also acquire greater significance in old age - elderly adults are especially vulnerable to social isolation and nostalgia may help them overcome feelings of loneliness.

(John Tierney, "What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows." 
The New York Times. July 8, 2013) 

The authors note that "nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength." They conclude that "nostalgia is uniquely positioned to offer integrative insights across such areas of psychology as memory, emotion, the self and relationships."

Induced Nostalgia

A favorite tool or researchers to help induce nostalgia is music. Listening to songs made people feel not only nostalgic but also warmer physically.

Speaking of a warm glow, Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University in China found that feelings of nostalgia were more common on cold days. The researchers also found that people in a cool room (68 degrees Fahrenheit) were more likely to nostalgize than people in warmer rooms.

Not everyone in the cool room turned nostalgic during the experiment, but the ones who did reported feeling warmer. That mind-body link means that nostalgia might have had evolutionary value to our ancestors long before Odysseus.

Not all things that cause nostalgia are positive. Loneliness, for instance, is a prominent trigger of nostalgia. Other psychological threats that have been documented to generate nostalgia include negative moods and feelings of meaninglessness. So past physicians and therapists might have been correct in detecting a relationship between negative emotional states and nostalgia.

Do doctors today believe any of us shouldn’t indulge in nostalgia? People who are leery of intimate relationships — “avoidant,” in psychological jargon — seem to reap relatively small benefits from nostalgia compared with people who crave closeness. And, there are undoubtedly neurotics who overdo it. 

Despite the bittersweet effects of nostalgia, most experts now believe it doesn’t keep people from looking ahead and planning for the future rather it helps give them the strength to move forward.

Should we willingly employ nostalgia to our advantage? Perhaps R.A. Salvatore in Streams of Silver offers good advice:

“Nostalgia is a necessary thing, I believe, and a way for all of us to find peace in that which we have accomplished, or even failed to accomplish. At the same time, if nostalgia precipitates actions to return to that fabled, rosy-painted time, particularly in one who believes his life to be a failure, then it is an empty thing, doomed to produce nothing but frustration and an even greater sense of failure.”

This old fan of rock remembers a line or two from a favorite song written by Stephen Stills about Judy Collins.

 Judy Collins "Judy Blue Eyes"

Taken from "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"
By Crosby, Stills and Nash

"Remember what we've said, and done
And felt about each other
Oh, babe, have mercy
Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now
I am not dreaming" 

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