How Nostalgia Works

The New Nostalgia
Remembering your prom glory days is OK once in a while. It might even make you happy.
Remembering your prom glory days is OK once in a while. It might even make you happy.
Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

A visit to the cherished past, especially its idealized version, can offer a fresh perspective on the present. It can remind us we're not alone, that people love us, and that our lives have meaning.

In other words, nostalgia can make us feel better. And it usually does.

Research shows that nostalgia promotes a laundry list of positive mental states and behaviors. After nostalgizing, people experience higher self-esteem and feel more socially connected [source: Routledge]. They're more optimistic, generous and creative [sources: Cheung et al. , Tierney, Van Tilburg et al. ]. They worry less about death [source: Wildschut et al.].

Nostalgia, then, can be a coping mechanism — a tool for picking us up when we're feeling lost, or bored, or lonely [sources: Routledge, Routledge].

Or cold. Nostalgia it seems, may have some evolutionary value.

That previously mentioned study linking nostalgia with cold temperatures? It found that chilly subjects were more likely to nostalgize than comfortable ones, yes; but it also found that when chilly people nostalgized, they perceived themselves or their environments as warmer. They also were less susceptible to the pain of extreme cold: When researchers had both nostalgic and non-nostalgic subjects hold their hands in 39 F (4 C) water until they couldn't take it anymore, the nostalgic subjects lasted longer [source: Zhou et al.]. It may just be that wistfully longing for the past helped our ancestors function more effectively in extreme winters [source: Zhou et al.].

It's not all warmth and mood lifts, of course. Nostalgia carries a sense of loss. It can sometimes lead to regret [source: University of Southampton]. But overall, it helps more than it hurts [source: Leibach].

Avoiding comparisons can help maintain that positive balance. A happiness competition between an idealized past and a non-idealized present will seldom turn out well for the present. And two or three episodes of nostalgia per week is plenty [source: Tierney]. Living in the past isn't good for anybody.

An occasional journey to summer camp, then — or senior prom, or the kids' table, or that first college road trip — is perfectly healthy. Heck, it's recommended.

Dwelling on the mysterious trigger that sends you there, possibly less so. (Seriously, what is that smell?) But such is life in the non-idealized present.

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