Ask just about anyone which decade was the absolute best to be a kid, and they’ll likely name their own era. The best music? That usually depends on which songs the person heard the most in their middle-school and teen years. Given a choice between Howdy Doody, Super Friends and Pokémon, which reigns supreme? You guessed it: The answer likely depends on which era was yours. And this says something interesting about our brains.
Nostalgia takes us back to a time when life felt simpler and less complex than our current time. This funny little feeling lets us relive, even if just for a moment, the happy memories we hold close—so overall it makes us feel good—but there's a tinge of sadness, too, since we also know that time is gone. Bittersweet, I think they call it. Let's look at its role in our lives.
Who doesn’t slip into the past when just the right song plays? Music has the power to transport, inspire and motivate. It reminds us of happy moments and helps us mark important occasions. We tend to gravitate toward the genres we heard most often during our younger years, likely for similar reasons. A certain song comes on and we can remember every detail of a moment that happened, many years in the past, while the song played another time. We're transported. We're in that space, looking around, experiencing those sensations again. (USually in an idealized form.) And our happiness hormones rise.
Likewise, smells from childhood, such as favorite foods, a family member’s perfume or aftershave, soaps or detergents, also have a way of sticking with us. We connect them with people, deep feelings and emotional events because our sense of smell sends heavy signals to a part of the brain responsible for emotions. This area, called the amygdala, sits near another system vital to emotion and memory, the hippocampus. And both of these play roles in the way we store and interpret nostalgia through our senses.
Nostalgia isn't merely an idle waste of time, though. It can help us through distressing times and serves a real purpose in our pursuit of wellbeing. One study demonstrated its therapeutic effects on depressed college students who were hesitant to seek professional help. A total of 148 participants watched one of two public service announcements (PSAs) on the campus counseling center; one announcement incorporated nostalgic components, and the other did not. The students who saw the nostalgic PSA were far more likely to seek help.
Nostalgia might also aid deteriorating minds. Research on dementia patients has shown reminiscing can have profound effects on recall. It can also help people feel more socially connected, which can improve self-esteem and outlook. In these cases, reconnecting with the past could help people stay better grounded in the present. So don't be afraid to let Grandma tell you that story for the thousandth time, you're helping her in countless ways and with each retelling maybe you'll glean a new detail.
Want to really help Grandma? Play her music instead of yours. Music has a way of connecting us to this feeling like little else.
Not all is glossy in the nostalgia world, though. While nostalgia has some great uses, it can also be a driving force that can push us into subconscious decisions like the students we mentioned above. Some marketers will use nostalgia to tug at our emotions and convince us to purchase their products. Television and film producers have drawn in successful audiences by setting their stories during heavily nostalgic eras. Consider advertisements that play on various elements of the past—like the fifties trope. Used without care, nostalgia can manipulate us in some sneaky ways. But honestly, that's a small price to pay for feeling that safe, warm, and happy feeling that nostalgia brings.
The past is a part of who we are, and our connections to it are important. This is what nostalgia has to teach us. With it, we can harness the est of what makes us tick. Our own individual highlight reels filled with emotion, scents and sounds from throughout our lives can bring us genuine joy and a sense of peace in a world where these things can be hard to track down at times. The science behind it is pretty incredible, but the feeling of revisiting that special moment is just plain magical. So don't be afraid to trigger the feeling on purpose, and loop in the younger set so that when their own nostalgic tendencies kick in later, you're the one they think of in connection with that warm and safe feeling. It's good stuff, eh? Share it liberally.
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