how to harness that seductive feeling of nostalgia for good

No, nostalgia doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the past

Hero image in post
photo: The Virgin Suicides / Paramount Classics
Hero image in post
photo: The Virgin Suicides / Paramount Classics

No, nostalgia doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the past

By Sophie Lou Wilson14 Jun 2023
8 mins read time
8 mins read time

The morning smells like cut grass and sun cream. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but somehow you’re transported back to the last day of school, six weeks of sunny possibility stretching out ahead. It feels like days spent lying on hot trampolines, fingers grazing fresh daisies, letting your hands get sticky from melting ice lollies. As you walk to work, your heart swells with excitement for a six-week holiday that isn’t coming, a yearning feeling that tugs you back into a vague jumble of childhood memories.

This feeling, as you know, is called nostalgia. It's a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past. It doesn’t only visit us on quiet summer mornings. It’s also a thriving cultural industry behind the endless Disney remakes, Y2K fashion revivals and band reunions. It’s why boomers on Twitter talk endless about how things were better in the "good old days." Nostalgia is huge on TikTok too, where POV #nostalgiacore videos aim to unlock old memories and memes with phrases like “girls when they realise they’ll never be 17 again”, are soundtracked by the gently haunting outro of Phoebe Bridgers’ "Scott Street".

Mostly, nostalgia comes to us spontaneously – a song that starts playing in the pub, or walking past someone wearing your ex’s perfume – but we also seek it out when we rewatch films we loved as tweens or revisit old photographs. It’s bittersweet. Bitter because you can never go back to that moment. Sweet because you get to relive it in your mind whenever you like.

The cultural hunger for nostalgia is apparently never ending. Ever since the early 2010s and the heady days of the Buzzfeed listicle, nostalgia has been leveraged across the internet as an easy way to provoke strong reactions. Yet this complex emotion often gets a bad rap. People who are particularly nostalgic are accused of being stuck in the past or resistant to change. Sometimes, the passing of time can feel physically painful and ruminating and dwelling on negative past feelings can have a negative effect on your mental health, but nostalgia actually has tons of wellness benefits. You can’t repeat the past, but you can channel nostalgia to create a better present. Here’s how.

Why do we feel nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that engages multiple parts of the brain. “It’s often described as an emotional cocktail,” says Clay Routledge, psychologist and author of Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live A More Meaningful Life. “It implicates areas of the brain beyond what you would think of as a normal emotional experience. There’s this higher level cognition that engages the frontal part of the brain that’s more about self-consciousness and self-awareness.”

Nostalgia isn’t as simple as feeling happy or feeling sad, so it can be hard to know what to do with this feeling. Everyone experiences nostalgia, but some people indulge in it more than others. They collect old magazines or listen exclusively to music from the early 2010s. They engage in activities they loved in childhood or obsess over a past era of fashion.

The good news is that very few people are too nostalgic. “People tend to use nostalgia fairly appropriately,” says Routledge. “It’s a way for them to reconnect with their past and remind themselves what’s important, who loves them, what they value in life.” People who are nostalgic aren’t necessarily more childish or immature, but there are certain factors that contribute to experiencing nostalgia at different frequencies at different times in our lives.

Seeking comfort in the past

Young adulthood tends to be a period of greater nostalgia than middle age. So, if you’re worried about how much you experience nostalgia right now, you probably won’t feel this way forever, at least not until you get much older. “Young people and old people might be more nostalgic than people in midlife because those are more likely to be times of upheaval and transition,” says Routledge. “When you are young, you go away to university or you’re starting a new relationship or you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life. You start a new career, move to a new city. There’s a lot of upheaval.”

Uncertain times breed nostalgia which might be why you found yourself rewatching Twilight or logging back into Tumblr during lockdown. There’s some evidence to suggest that nostalgia is a personality trait in itself, but frequent nostalgia is also associated with loneliness and anxiety. This might sound negative, but really it proves the comforting benefits of nostalgia. The past is fixed and unchanging so returning to it can provide great comfort when we’re feeling anxious and alone. We can use it to self-soothe and remind ourselves that we won’t feel this way forever.

Learning from the past to understand the future

We need to understand the past in order to predict the future and make sense of the present. Therefore, nostalgia isn’t all about the past. It can push us forwards too. Invention and innovation might be associated with looking to the future, but often the most creative people draw from the past. “If you talk to a musician or an artist or a filmmaker, they can spend hours telling you about the films they watched as a child, or the music they listened to, and how that really inspires them to innovate,” says Routledge.

Lonely nostalgics aren’t just sitting alone in their rooms conjuring memories of their ex all the time. They’re learning from their experiences to apply them to the future. In the depths of loneliness, nostalgia reminds us that we’re worthy of love and friendship. Most nostalgic experiences involve other people in some capacity, so they show us the importance of friends and family no matter what else is going on.

Nostalgia is also a great motivator to get out and meet new people. “When people are lonely, they often look to the past for people they miss and relationships they had,” said Routledge. “They’re looking back at something they can’t have. That should be sad, right? But it can help you build confidence to go out and build new relationships. You can use nostalgia intentionally to restore your confidence in a way that doesn't keep you stuck in the past, but actually pushes you forward to develop new goals and strategies for building future relationships.”

Making sense of our lives

Another reason why nostalgia can be helpful in building new relationships is because it helps us establish our values. By noting the kinds of memories we keep returning to, we can figure out what’s important to us. As a result, deeply nostalgic people are often less obsessed with outward markers of success. “Memories are so much more focused on what we call intrinsic values like contentment and meaning,” says Routledge, “as opposed to extrinsic values like success, fame, wealth and beauty.”

When someone experiences nostalgia for their youth, for instance, they’re more likely to yearn for its sky high possibilities and carefree sense of adventure than they are for the fact that they just looked a little bit younger back then. It’s also not uncommon to feel nostalgic towards an objectively bad time in your life. Reflecting on these experiences might feel painful at times, but for better or worse, they were significant moments in your life and we’re likely to spend more time reflecting on significant experiences.

That’s why so many of us feel nostalgic for adolescence, no matter how good or bad those years really were. At school, you probably heard the phrase, “Your school days are the best days of your life,” but for many, this is far from true. The fact that the phrase proliferates so widely is perhaps a result of uncritical nostalgia rather than it holding any truth. “Adolescence seems to be a really important time for nostalgic memories,” says Routledge. “You’re developing your own sense of self. You’re starting to get a little bit more freedom. You become more yourself.”

Savouring the moment

Sometimes nostalgia pulls us out of the present moment. This isn’t great if you want to be more mindful and appreciative of the present rather than teleporting elsewhere in your mind. However, romanticising the past can actually help us romanticise the present. If you set a goal to create experiences that you’ll be nostalgic for in the future, then you will create moments that are more meaningful to you. Routledge calls this “savouring” because it’s focused on savouring the moment for as long as possible. This kind of intentional nostalgia, he suggests, is the key to channelling this emotion to feel good.

“When you savour an experience, you’re more mindful in the moment and you’re really focused on just taking in what you’re doing and appreciating what you’re creating,” says Routledge. “It’s more immersive. You’re making it more likely that you’ll be nostalgic for that experience in the future because you’re more aware of it.”

One day, you’ll be nostalgic for this time in your life too. Every moment will become a memory. So, savour it. Make it special. Romanticise every mundane aspect of your routine because, in years to come, you’ll hear a song come on shuffle and yearn to live through those ordinary moments once more.