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The power of nostalgia

Reminiscing is more than mere indulgence – as Features Director Danielle Hine discovers, it can strengthen everything from relationships to mental health


ne of the best evenings out I’ve had recently involved madly jumping around, barefoot, at my friend’s house to some of our favourite old-school 80s tunes. Cue lots of: ‘Oh. My. God. Remember this?!’ The night reached peak cheese when we each straddled a kitchen chair to screech our own off-key version of Cher’s Turn Back Time. (Apologies to anyone living within earshot of Brockley, London.) By the time I left, we were on such a giggling, giddy high from our retro extravaganza that we felt like kids again. And all this despite the fact that I’d spent the earlier part of the night mopping up my friend’s tears over a hideous relationship break-up.


This, dear reader, is the positive power of nostalgia in action. ‘Triggers such as the music we loved as teenagers, or even a dish our mum used to make, can transport us to a time when the world seemed safe and full of possibility – it brings back a lost Eden,’ says Dr Neel Burton, psychiatrist and author of Heaven And Hell: The Psychology Of The Emotions (Acheron Press).


Current popular culture reflects nostalgic leanings, too, with more of my childhood music crushes reforming during 2017 (hello, Bros and Bananarama); the successful big-screen revival of Wonder Woman; and the return of TV’s The Crystal Maze. Hell, even the Nokia 3310 staged a brave comeback (it sold out in its first week on the shelves earlier this year).


So it’s official: the past can uplift our present, and give us hope for the future…


So just how can channelling the past be good for us?

The man who knows the scientific answers is Dr Tim Wildschut, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, who’s been researching the topic for over a decade. ‘One of the big things “nostalgising” gives us is a sense of social connectedness,’ he explains. ‘Say you have a memory of your grandparents – it’s as if you’re there with them, even though they may no longer be around or don’t live nearby.’


Nostalgia can also help with self-esteem and, therefore, the motivation to move forward. ‘It gives us a “template” for what things might look like in the future,’ says Dr Wildschut. ‘For example, think back to an occasion when you were a good friend to someone when they needed you, and a time when they did the same for you. This reminds you that not only are you a valuable mate, but you have people in your life who are kind to you. This then gives you the motivation and confidence to go out and form new friendships.’ He adds that this is also why athletes often reflect on past successes to help spur them on in the present.


It makes sense. But research shows that nostalgising when you’re lonely, down or feeling homesick is good for you, too. Over to Dr Wildschut: ‘If you’re doubting yourself, nostalgia might actually reassure you. Say, for instance, you’ve moved to a new job in a new city. By looking back to a past workplace and the friends you had there, you’re able to think to yourself, “I had great mates at my previous company, so I’ll make connections here as well.” Nostalgia can contradict your negative mindset.’

Nostalgia gives us context, perspective and direction

It can also give your life meaning. We’re all guilty of saying, ‘Where has this year gone?’, and anxiety about the passage of time can make us wonder what our lives are all about. This is where nostalgia steps in. ‘When you reflect on important, positive events – such as your wedding or the birth of your children, for example – these memories are meaningful and valuable, imbuing you with the sense that your life has had purpose,’ adds Dr Wildschut. Dr Burton agrees: ‘It gives us context, perspective and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life (and that of others) is rooted in a narrative. And that there have been – and will again be – meaningful moments and experiences.’


So the next time you find yourself bonding and cackling with your cousins about the time Grandma got tipsy on half a glass of shandy, took out her false teeth and chased you around the house clacking them (true story), remember Dr Wildschut’s words: ‘You can draw on your memories as and when you need them. Nostalgia truly is the gift that keeps on giving.’

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Photography Alamy, Getty Images, Shutterstock 


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