How to Turn Nostalgia into a Strength

It’s Not Just for Narcissists and Old Cranks

“Nostalgia,” Doug Larson described, “is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.” And as Proust said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” our nostalgic memories tend to paint the past in a much more optimistic light than reality.

I may be nostalgic for my youth, but I can promise you that it wasn’t nearly as great as I crack it up to be now. I tend to filter out the relationship dramas and struggles that came from being broke all the time, instead fixating on the freedom and seemingly limitless choices in front of me.

Nostalgia offers us half-truths. As Carson McCullers said, “we are homesick most for the places we have never known,” it gives us a rose-colored rearview mirror. And if we’re comparing a series of falsely positive memories to the reality of today, it’s easy to diminish the joy we experience in the present.

We tend to view nostalgia as looking back to the “good old days,” something my grandfather would say as he criticized my work ethic. But it doesn’t restrict itself to olden times and it’s not specific to senior citizens. It tends to happen in the face of any change or uncertainty, leaving us wistful for a more stable period. And with all of the turmoil that people have seen in the last six months, it’s tempting to look back on our earlier lives earlier with those same rose-colored glasses.

That this happens is inevitable. Its human nature and part of having memories. The question is, do these feelings of nostalgia help us create a better future as we move forward? Or do they just close our eyes to the reality of the present?

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” — Simone Signoret, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be

In the late 17th Century, Johannes Hofer came upon a strange illness affecting Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. The symptoms included fatigue, insomnia, and indigestion, and were often so severe that the soldiers needed to be discharged. Hofer would go on to discover that their symptoms weren’t the result of a physical ailment, but an intense homesickness. He termed the condition nostalgia, borrowing the Greek words for homecoming (nostos) and pain (algos).

After a review that would make scientists everywhere proud, doctors came up with a cause — brain damage caused by the constant clanging of cowbells in Swiss pastures.

As insightful as this prognosis no doubt was, science eventually took over and people realized that nostalgia was not a neurological disease, but a mental state. And while nostalgia was originally seen as a negative — Roderick Peters described it as debilitating and something “that persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances,” more contemporary research has since countered that view.

A 2015 research study showed that nostalgic reminiscence can be a stabilizing force. It can strengthen our sense of personal continuity, reminding us that we possess a store of powerful memories that are deeply intertwined with our identity.” Other studies show that people who demonstrate nostalgic behavior have more optimistic perspectives in the face of adversity and are more willing to take risks to create new memories.

Despite this research, nostalgia continues to get a bad rap. You often hear people say that they’re not nostalgic, they‘re not stuck in the past. Many tend to associate nostalgia with weakness and an unwillingness to face the challenge confronting us today.

But this view is only part of the story. The truth is that we’re all nostalgic to certain degrees. And as much as we like to think we live for the present, many of us seem to identify more with our past.

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.” — William Faulker, Light in August

Consider your next vacation. What if, at the end of it, all of your pictures and videos would be destroyed? Furthermore, the moment you return, you’ll lose all memories of the trip. It will be as if it didn’t happen at all.

Would you still take the vacation? Would you do something different? And how much would you pay for it compared to a typical vacation that comes with memories?

Daniel Kahneman offered this thought experiment in Thinking, Fast and Slow, to demonstrate the difference between our experiencing self and our remembering self.

Most people see the prospect of losing their memories as significantly reducing the value of the experience. Some even say that they wouldn’t bother going at all, showing that they place much higher emphasis on their remembering self than their experiencing counterpart. As odd as it may seem, we tend to identify more closely with our remembering self and our memories than with the experiencing self that’s living this very moment.

Given this behavior, it shouldn’t be too surprising that we’re all subject to some level of nostalgia. We strongly identify with our memories. Those memories provide the story of who we are. They define how we see the world and how we view our own place within it. Leveraging them in a positive manner isn’t a liability — it’s a strength. Provided, of course, we do so productively.

“I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.” — Lou Reed

Svetlana Boym, Harvard professor and author, coined two types of nostalgia based on her research: restorative nostalgia — the longing for a past that you want to reconstruct; and reflective nostalgia — the positive emotions of those memories while leaving the past in the past. Reflective nostalgia brings a smile to your face when you remember rocking your kids to sleep or teaching them how to play catch. Restorative nostalgia encourages you to recite your high school football stats for anyone who’ll listen.

While reflective nostalgia can help create optimism and resilience, restorative nostalgia tends to have more negative results. When you combine it with the fact that we tend to mainly remember the positive events, it creates a dangerous set of expectations for the future. It glosses over the complexities of our past to fit the convenience of today. While this can bring a measure of comfort in moderation, these altered memories also blind people to the realities surrounding them.

If you’re focused on restoring an inaccurate vision of the past, it will limit what you can accomplish going forward.

The goal of nostalgia, then, shouldn’t be to retreat into the past, but to leverage those experiences for the future. Use them to mobilize you towards new opportunities and challenges. Not so you can recreate an illusory yesterday, but so that you can build off them for a better tomorrow.

“There comes a time in your life when you have to choose to turn the page, write another book, or simply close it.” — Shannon Adler

So back to that first question — Is nostalgia helpful or harmful to our future? The answer depends on whether you’re using it to advance or preclude your own evolution.

Our lives improve and evolve through experiments. We try new things — keeping the good and cutting the bad. And while it’s rarely a straight-line projection, this path lets us bend our long arc towards growth.

If our memories and nostalgia can improve this behavior, then it’s an asset. As we use them to take on new challenges and try new experiences, it furthers our own evolution and becomes a strength. If, on the other hand, we retreat into the past and allow nostalgia to create barriers to growth — it becomes very limiting indeed.

So remember what’s worth remembering. Use them to mobilize yourself towards new challenges. And don’t spend too much time in the past that you lose sight of the present. As Zeena Schreck warned “Nostalgia is an illness for those who haven’t realized that today is tomorrow’s nostalgia.”

When you look back on today, what will you feel nostalgic about? What will make you smile? What should you make sure that you pull into the future?

I have no idea what I’m doing. And that’s a good thing.

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