Is nostalgia good for you? Or is it unhealthy to spend too much time looking backwards?
A few days before my last birthday, I watched myself learn to walk.
I had just received my digital transfers of VHS tapes and 8mm film from Legacy Republic (part of becoming an affiliate). I was excited to view the past. Memories I could no longer access were there for me to watch—including trying to blow out my first birthday cake candles under the watchful eye of my sister. Until she took over.
I couldn’t wait to show my 22-year old snippets of his first bath and a tape from my parents. Just three weeks before their deaths in an auto accident, they made a tape for their then 2- and 4-year-old grandsons, which ended in a cheerful “bye-bye.”
My son wanted nothing to do with my home movies. “I don’t want to get all nostalgic,” he said. I was shocked. He said “nostalgic” like it was a bad thing. Who raised this kid?
His words gave me pause. As I try to convince people to preserve their memories—to write them down and to digitize their media—am I asking them to let yesteryear take up too much of their now?
I decided to look into it.
No longer a dirty word
My son wasn’t the first person to think of nostalgia in negative terms. Back in 1688, Johannes Hofer equated the word nostalgia with home-sickness. According to Clay Routledge’s The Rehabilitation of an Old Emotion: A New Science of Nostalgia,” the Swiss physician considered battlefront sadness to be a cerebral disease caused “by continuous vibrations of animal spirits through fibers in the middle brain.”
Others, Routledge notes, theorized that nostalgia “resulted from damage… caused by the nonstop clanging of cowbells in the Alps.” Clearly, it was time to take a fresh look.
Twenty-first century research suggests that even when it evokes bittersweet emotions, thinking about the past can heal. (Whew!)
Why Nostalgia is Good
Doctors Wing-Yee Cheung, Constantine Sedikides, and Tim Wildschut published their study of nostalgia in the November 2103 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They found that nostalgia can combat loneliness and “raises self-esteem, which in turn heightens optimism.” Dr. Wildschut explains:
Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future. Our findings do imply that nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity. 
Chris Weller equates this with clicking a Viewmaster in our mind’s eye, reliving the feelings we had when it first happened.
Those good feelings multiply when we tell stories (or look at pictures) in a social or family setting. Our memories beget other memories. Storytelling one-upmanship ensues. As do laughter and feelings of love. So yes, I am helping people by persuading them to preserve their memories and family stories.
Most of the time.
Memories Don’t Always Feel Good
Several articles about the positivity of nostalgia end with wording that makes me cringe. Three weekly doses should be positive for all—except “neurotics” and “avoidants.”
Having a self-diagnosed neurotic moment, I read between the lines. If nostalgia isn’t making you happier, there must be something wrong with you. Right?
Not necessarily. The anti-nostalgic may not need to rush to the nearest shrink. In fact, maybe he’s doing well to know himself. When the memory we’re confronted with reminds us of a traumatic loss, it might be salt to the wound
Today, for example, would have been my friend’s birthday. Her funeral was just last week. It’s too early for memories to feel fond.
But there’s more to it than the linear progress of time. It has to do with the magnitude and circumstances of the loss as well as our personalities. For instance, in my son’s case, it might be a self-defense mechanism. If he doesn’t dwell on what could have been, he won’t feel sad. Besides, he was so young he has few of his own memories to relive. Perhaps the Viewmaster effect is lost on him.
Making Nostalgia Positive
In How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck), Thorin Klosowski points out that the research by Cheung, Sedikides, and Wildschut doesn’t recommend basking only in the past.
The glitch with nostalgia comes when we stop creating new memories because we’re too busy thinking about the past. That creates a cycle where you’re not doing new things, making new memories, enjoying time with new people, or learning new lessons… If nostalgia acts as a store of positive memories to call back on when you’re feeling down, you have to create new ones before that storage runs out.
Klosowski says that it’s all about how we frame reminiscences. He recommends focusing on reliving the past, not comparing it to the present. Especially if we’re not fond of the present.
So…. back to those memories you need to preserve …
 “Back to the future: nostalgia increases optimism,” University of Southampton, 13 November 2013, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2013/11/13-nostalgia-increases-optimism.page.
 Chris Weller, “Nostalgia is Good for You: When We Reminisce, Life Feels More Meaningful and Death Less Frightening,” Medical Daily (blog), July 12, 2013, http://www.medicaldaily.com/nostalgia-good-you-when-we-reminisce-life-feels-more-meaningful-and-death-less-frightening-247627.