Does Nostalgia Change the Way We Feel About the Past?

It happens to all of us. You are going about your ordinary day when you walk by a man wearing Curve cologne, and you are instantly reminded of your first boyfriend. The feeling is so powerful that there you are again with him, sitting on that porch from a decade ago, eating Popsicles in June. OK, maybe your first boyfriend didn’t wear Curve (I guess you weren’t dating a guido), but we can all relate to the nostalgic feeling a smell, sound, old picture, or season can stir within.

John Tierny recently wrote an article for the New York Times titled, "What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows." In it, he discusses the findings of Constantine Sedikides, a psychology professor at the University of Southampton who has conducted pioneering research into nostalgia, and believes that the sensation may be a biological tool that allows humans to remember their past fondly so that they may be optimistic toward, and inspired by, the future.

Nostalgia has been around for as long as there has been memory, but it used to be seen as a psychiatric disorder, something to be cured. Later, it became synonymous with depression and homesickness, even though nostalgia afflicts everyone, regardless of their mood or how far they are from home. This is why in the throes of summer, my favorite season, I become nostalgic for winters past — for layered sweaters, and flannel, and hot coffee, and glittery lights. I think winter blows, so how can I be nostalgic for it? And how can the smell of a stranger’s wet hair on the subway instantly transport me back to my first summer of sleepaway camp? Of the 15 days I was at that camp, it rained for nine, and I cried for seven, but the smell of that hair and the feelings it brought made me so, so happy for a fleeting second. I thought maybe I was just a freak, but one Sunday evening, as I was reading PostSecret, a blog where people anonymously submit postcards that reveal a secret they are harboring, I came across a “secret” that read, “I am nostalgic for a time in my life I wasn’t happy during.” This phenomenon, where we somehow miss things we didn’t even enjoy the first time, stuck with me, so I did some more research, and it turns out we all feel nostalgia for times in our lives that are less than blissful.

We do this as a subconscious way of making our pasts more bearable, more joyful. When a certain chapter in our lives has closed for good, it is much easier to feel cheery about it, to glean the goodness of it while fully knowing we will never return to that part of our life. Nostalgia makes us more optimistic and positive about our futures. A BBC webpage explains that, “details evoked by nostalgic smells are not as important as the emotions they recall. But our minds reshape these memories, sending them through a rose-tinted filter that redefines them as 'good times'"

What strange creatures we must be to live through something, only to remember not the details of what happened — not the plot of our lives — but how we felt about it. We believe the revised version of the story, and that is enough to keeps us optimistic, to keep us moving forward. I don’t know if I should find comfort in the thought, “Well, this sucks, but when I remember it later it won’t suck as bad,” but weirdly enough, I do. We are told time and time again by our yoga teachers, our moms, or our tea-bag fortunes to, “be present,” and “live in the moment,” when, in fact, the act of being nostalgic can make us feel better about our present.

In his article, Tierny writes, “researchers at Southampton induced negative moods by having people read about a deadly disaster and take a personality test that supposedly revealed them to be exceptionally lonely. Sure enough, the people depressed about the disaster victims or worried about being lonely became more likely to wax nostalgic. And the strategy worked: They subsequently felt less depressed and less lonely.”

This isn’t to say that nostalgia only functions as a way to remember things as better than they actually were. I am nostalgic about plenty of things that were truly good to begin with (unless I’m just remembering them that way now). I am nostalgic for vacations, wine on the beach, fireflies, the smell of birthday candles that were just blown out. I think what it comes down to is that, as nostalgic as I get, there isn’t a time in my life that I long to return to. I’m glad to have had those times, and I’m glad to have left them behind. Did I enjoy eating cherry Popsicles on my porch with the boyfriend who reeked of Curve? Absolutely. Do I want to be doing that now? No, that would be weird.