There are bound to be days and moments of nostalgia- defined as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a place or a period with happy personal associations. As a highly empathetic, experience-driven person, day after day nostalgia creeps up on my thoughts.
Is it healthy or unhealthy to be nostalgic? About 15 years ago, researchers would highly agree it was unhealthy to dwell in the past. It can become this habit of living in the past and can be the root cause of much depression. However, more recently, researchers have also argued for its importance in the human experience.
Greek academic Constantine Sedikides talks of nostalgia as the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future.” All experiences in my life are interconnected and plays a crucial part in the next, I know past experiences have only created more joy in the next.
If that’s the case, then why does nostalgia feel like I’m stuck in the past?
“Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states, for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present. What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness, and continuity in the past. It is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states. It serves to promote emotional equilibrium, homeostasis.”
I preach the importance of living in the moment and the importance of gratitude. However, I am starting to understand why with the 80% of my brain that is subconscious will occasionally shock me with feelings of loneliness and a longing to be in the past. Every time it does, I am torn in between thoughts of guilt because I should be simply thankful to be where I am and thoughts of kindness (to myself) because it’s okay to feel. In fact, according to Sedikides and Wildschut, it’s important to feel nostalgic to balance our emotional health.
In fact, this research also suggests nostalgia has a grounding effect. “In difficult situations, it appears that nostalgia grounds you. It gives you a base on which to evaluate the present as a temporary state, and in doing so it perhaps builds resilience.”
To leave my vulnerability on the table for all the see, the above states my current state of mind. Nostalgia about Austin, about Cambodia, and many other past experiences has crept up a lot more this past year. Despite the sadness and lonelieness, I feel at the time, I am also reminded that the present is a temporary state. Whether this portion of my life experience is a year or a few years, it is temporary.
Knowing it’s temporary not only builds resilience in my growth but also serves as motivation to work towards my desired goals, work towards a place and an experience of immense joy and meaningfulness.
If you merely skimmed all the above and skipped to here….. then you need to slow down, take 4 deep breaths and scroll back up and read my post.
For a more detailed read of research on nostalgia, read “Look back in joy: the power of nostalgia.”