The Problem With Nostalgia: It’s a Fine Line Between Reminiscing and Living in the Past

·6 min read
Photo credit: Carmen Gold / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Carmen Gold / EyeEm - Getty Images

It’s no surprise that the uncertainty of the last 18+ months have many of us yearning for the past, scrolling through old photos and reliving memories, wishing we were anywhere but the present. Even as the world inches towards normalcy, many of us still aren’t quite there. Experts say stressful times (like say, living through a global pandemic) — along with sensory input like music and smells — are one of the main triggers of nostalgia.

While it can be comforting to relive happy memories from the past by scrolling through old photos and watching old favorites that remind us of our youth (Sex and the City, anyone?) there can actually be a downside to too much reminiscing. While nostalgia can be an effective antidote to stress and anxiety, when a trip down memory lane goes on for too long, it can actually make you feel worse. Here’s how the science of nostalgia works, as well as the signs that you’re spending too long wandering your memory banks.

What causes nostalgia?

There are two types of nostalgia, according to psychologist and nostalgia expert Bettina Zengel, Ph.D., of the University of Essex. Collective nostalgia is a person’s experience as part of a larger group and their understanding of the past within that context. Examples involve reliving one’s college glory days or time spent as part of a sports team. Personal nostalgia is yearning for the past in regards to one’s individual experience, such as looking back fondly at the fun summer you spent at sleep-away camp.

Artifacts such as yearbooks and souvenirs (literally French for “to remember”), are also known to set off nostalgia, since such items hold a bit of our past, explains Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in nostalgia at Le Moyne College. She also cites adolescence as a period most likely to trigger nostalgia. Less tangible things, like conversations with loved ones and even smells, tastes or music from particular periods, can likewise cause nostalgia, Zengel points out. Stress can also be a potential factor, since a nostalgic response can help your body and mind settle down.

Although it can happen at any time, nostalgia is triggered most strongly during transitional periods, says Batcho. “Looking back as we anticipate moving forward at special occasions such as weddings and graduations reassures us when we face the uncertainty of the future,” she explained.

How pop culture plays on nostalgic tendencies

Hollywood loves a reboot, but in the past couple of years, there’s been an explosion of them. In 2020 (once filming was allowed to resume), we saw announcements for 55 updates of old favorites like Fresh Prince, The Babysitter’s Club and American Pie. The year 2021 produced similarly long lists, with over 25 reboots of nostalgic franchises, like Avatar the Last Airbender and Clueless, announced.

Through reboots of past success stories, Hollywood targets our vulnerability in the hopes that we'll tune in. Nostalgic promotions in marketing and advertising also allow consumers to recall positive emotions linked to the past.

“Research has found that feeling nostalgic is also connected to a decreased desire for money and thus a greater willingness to pay more for products," explains Zengel. A study published in Neuron showed that participants were willing to pay "to reminisce about a positive past experience." Another study done by researchers from the University of South Hampton, Grenoble Ecole de Management and the University of Minnesota found participants were much more willing to buy a product or donate to a cause after positive reactions to a nostalgic advertisement.

Nostalgia can be soothing

But how susceptible you might be to these elements might depend on your age or where you are in life. “Research suggests that what people feel most nostalgic for does vary across the lifespan,” explains Batcho. “Later in life, people are likely to feel nostalgic for the music [or television or movies] of their adolescence, as well as for the friendships and personal relationships they had during that youthful period.” This explains why many reboots and throwbacks call to a generation’s adolescence.

Both experts said nostalgia is generally a positive emotion that can help relax and counteract anxiety during a trying period. “In times of sadness or loss, nostalgic connections can provide hope for better times ahead,” Batcho explains. It also serves as a psychological resource, or a mental tool one can use to cope in life and thus helps to restore inner balance, explains Zengel. When you’re feeling a “threat” such as stress, you are more likely to tap into nostalgia, which can soften the experience and help you feel calmer.

It helps me and my loved ones feel closer

Over the past year and a half, I’ve often turned to nostalgia to help when I found myself wishing for life pre-COVID. After months of separation due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, my Canadian boyfriend and I were fortunate enough to spend months of the pandemic together in Montreal, thanks to family border exemptions. At the end of the summer however, I left to finally fulfill my dream of graduate school in Europe. Now, thanks to visas, ongoing travel restrictions and COVID-19 variant surges, we’re looking at another separation of an undetermined length of time.

My coping mechanism thus far has been to scroll through my camera roll and reminisce on our snowy winter walks in Québec, the easy long-distance relationship commute we had between Vancouver and Seattle pre-COVID and the hope we felt as vaccines became available. Sometimes as I scroll, a flood of memories transports me back to specific moments, like the joy and relief I felt upon our reunion on Christmas Day last year in below-freezing temperatures outside the Montreal airport.

But reminiscing can have negative effects, too

Rewatching shows from my young adult years like Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother and Jane the Virgin also comforted me and reminded me of simpler times. However, when I spent too long reminiscing alone, I became more miserable. I became reluctant to engage in daily life, and focused mainly on the past, a warning sign of excessive nostalgia, which Batcho warns can lead to depression. As a result, I felt even more acutely how far apart my loved ones and I really were.

Too much yearning for the past can negatively take your attention away from the present and lead to feelings of depression by stifling interest in forming new relationships and personal growth, explains Batcho. If you’re a habitual worrier, Zengel adds, you may be even more susceptible. Both experts said to keep an eye out for antisocial behavior, such as regularly declining invitations to social events, avoiding interactions with loved ones or a reluctance to engage in daily routines, such as forgoing a morning exercise regimen or a standing coffee date. Constantly trying to recreate the past by returning to a location of a fond memory and hoping to have a similar experience may also be problematic, especially if it’s otherwise disrupting your life.

If you find yourself dipping into these “problem areas,” Batcho recommends sharing your feelings and memories with loved ones, also known as social reminiscing. I did this via regular FaceTimes with out-of-state friends where we looked back on college road trips and all-night study sessions together. The connection was great of course, but more important was the reminder that life can be fun and will be again. Nostalgia does not necessarily always have to be a solo experience, Batcho says. “Keeping it social can help avoid the trap of solitary remembering that can become isolating if excessive.”

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