A Stroll Down Memory Lane Has Benefits ; Nostalgia Helps People Deal with the Future and Is Good for the Body, Too

By Tierney, John | International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Stroll Down Memory Lane Has Benefits ; Nostalgia Helps People Deal with the Future and Is Good for the Body, Too


Tierney, John, International Herald Tribune


Now a full-fledged object of clinical study, fond memories have been shown to improve a person's sense of self-worth and even to lift body temperature in some circumstances.

Not long after moving to the University of Southampton, Constantine Sedikides had lunch with a colleague in the psychology department and described some unusual symptoms he'd been feeling. A few times a week, he was suddenly hit with nostalgia for his previous home at the University of North Carolina: memories of old friends, Tar Heel basketball games, fried okra, the sweet smells of autumn in Chapel Hill.

His colleague, a clinical psychologist, made an immediate diagnosis. He must be depressed. Why else live in the past? Nostalgia had been considered a disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician who attributed soldiers' mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home, nostos in Greek, and the accompanying pain, algos.

But Dr. Sedikides didn't want to return to any home -- not to Chapel Hill, not to his native Greece -- and he insisted to his lunch companion that he wasn't in pain.

"I told him I did live my life forward, but sometimes I couldn't help thinking about the past, and it was rewarding," he says. "Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward."

The colleague remained skeptical, but ultimately Dr. Sedikides prevailed. The lunch in 1999 inspired him to pioneer a field that today includes dozens of researchers around the world using tools developed at his social-psychology laboratory, including a questionnaire called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale. After a decade of study, nostalgia isn't what it used to be -- it's looking a lot better.

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they're reminiscing. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to feel literally warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side -- it's a bittersweet emotion -- but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

"Nostalgia makes us a bit more human," Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family home to get through hard times, butDr. Sedikides stresses that nostalgia is not the same as homesickness. It's not just for those away from home, and it's not a sickness, despite its historical reputation.

Nostalgia was originally described as a "neurological disease of essentially demonic cause" by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688. Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers' ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.

In the 19th and 20th centuries it was variously classified as an "immigrant psychosis," a form of "melancholia," a "mentally repressive compulsive disorder" and other pathologies. But when Dr. Sedikides, Tim Wildschut and other psychologists at Southampton began studying nostalgia, they found it to be common in people around the world, including children as young as 7 (who look back fondly on birthdays and vacations).

"The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America," Dr. Wildschut says. The topics are universal -- reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.

Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. …

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