We all have channels that catapult our minds into the past.
Under the right conditions, the tiniest trigger can unleash a flood of sunny memories in even the least sentimental among us.
Such reminiscence can be healthier than you think. Despite nostalgia’s bittersweet rap and the oft-heard advice to live in the moment, recent studies suggest that the occasional detour down memory lane can give your spirits a significant lift.
Thinking of good memories for just 20 minutes a day can make people more cheerful than they were the week before, and happier than if they think of their current lives, report researchers from Loyola University.
Most people spontaneously reminisce when they’re alone or feeling down–or both–which suggests that we reach for pleasant memories as an antidote to feeling blue, says Loyola psychologist Fred Bryant.
Think of a new arrival to a big city who remembers good times with friends back home. Or a premed student struggling with college chemistry, who bolsters his confidence with memories of high school triumph. “Reminiscence can motivate you,” says Bryant. More important, it can give you “a sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose—instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life.”
Researchers at the University of Southampton in the U.K. have also found nostalgia to be a potent mood booster. Since memories often include important people in our lives, they may give us a comforting sense of belonging.
According to studies by psychologist Tim Wildschut and colleagues, people who write about a nostalgic event are more cheerful after exercise compared with people who write about an everyday experience. The studies also show that people who write about good memories report higher self-esteem and feel more positively about friendships and close relationships.
Wildschut adds that people who are disposed to experience nostalgia also tend to see their past as positive, adding support to the idea of a nostalgia-prone personality. Previous research has shown that naturally nostalgic people have high self-esteem and are less prone to depression. They cope with problems more effectively and are more likely than not to receive social support after experiencing stress. Not surprisingly, these well-rooted folks also see their families more often.
Even people who aren’t particularly nostalgic can enjoy the benefits of recalling the good old days. For best results, try reminiscing in your head rather than on paper, suggests a forthcoming study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
When Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside, asked participants to either write or think about their happiest life experience, she found that those who replayed their happiest moments in their heads later experienced greater well-being than the writing group. Interestingly, a large body of research, including Lyubomirsky’s, shows that just the opposite happens when people process unpleasant life events: Ruminating about them retraumatizes you, whereas analyzing them through writing helps you get past the trauma.
This dichotomy makes sense, since “you don’t want to get past a positive experience,” explains Lyubomirsky. On the contrary, she says, “There’s a magic and mystery in positive events,” so analyzing them lifts the veil and makes wondrous events more ordinary.
For some people, reminiscing about good times can trigger painful emotions. Recalling a career triumph can make you feel like a has-been, and thinking back to cozy weekends with Grandma might be a poignant reminder that she’s gone.
However, it needn’t be that way. “It’s what you focus on,” says Lyubomirsky. “Do you focus on how positive it was then, or that it’s over now?”
People who see each good experience as permanently enriching are more likely to get a mood boost. On the other hand, a person who mainly focuses on the contrast between past and present damns every good experience with the attitude that nothing in the future can ever live up to it.
To avoid dwelling on this contrast, Bryant recommends connecting the past with the present. As you think about your current job or family, for example, recalling your younger self who once dreamt of this future can enhance your outlook on the life you have now. “Recalled anticipation spices the moment,” he says.
Certainly, you can overdo reminiscence—when there’s no joy in the moment except by resurrecting the past,” says Bryant. He suggests a better approach to the passage of time: using positive reminiscence as part of a cycle that also includes savoring the present and looking forward to the future.
Such reminisces can be healthier than you think. Thinking of good memories for just 20 minutes a day can make people more cheerful than they were the week before, and happier than if they think of their current lives, research studies show.
According to one study, people who are disposed to experience nostalgia also tend to see their past as positive. It went on to say that nostalgia-prone people generally have high self-esteem and are less prone to depression.
They cope with problems more efficiently and have less stress in their lives. They appear to be well-rooted folks who spend more time with their families and enjoy the company of others. Sweet remembrances help keep us in a good mood so that we can enjoy the gifts bestowed upon us. Even better, happiness leads to a longer life.
Top o’ the morning!