According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word nostalgia is derived from the Greek words “nostos” meaning homecoming, and “algos”, meaning pain, grief or distress. In 1688, after observing a tendency in soldiers stationed abroad to focus on memories of home, a Swiss doctor named Johannes Hoffer described nostalgia as a “neurological disease”.
If you’re like me you have no trouble understanding what this discussion is about. I readily admit to spending time strolling down the tree-lined path of those sweet days gone by. Is this an unhealthy thing, as Dr. Hoffer defined it? No, in fact a recent New York Times article lists some distinct benefits to those journeys of heart and mind.
In an article titled “What is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows”, published on July 8, 2013, John Tierney discussed research that has changed attitudes toward time spent enjoying memories of the past. Dr. Constantine Sedikides of the Centre for Research on Self and Identity, The University of Southampton is quoted as saying “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human.”
In 2011 Dr. Sedikides and colleagues published a study entitled “Nostalgia: The Gift That Keeps on Giving”. Nostalgic feelings are said to “typically involve interactions between the self and close others such as family members, friends, and romantic partners. These social interactions occur in the context of momentous life events such as reunions, vacations, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and childbirths.” Dr. Timothy Wildschut says the stuff of nostalgia is the same everywhere. “The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America.”
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that music is a good way to induce nostalgia. They can say that again. Who hasn’t heard just the first few bars of something from ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ and been hurtled right back to the summer of 1967? “She’s Leaving Home” is the song that’s most evocative for me.
So do we have permission to spend our days lost in reminiscence while ignoring the here and now and making no preparations for the future? No. Dr. Sedikides mentioned the need to be cautious about the kind of remembering that causes us to think the past was better. This can rob us of our initiative and hopes for the future. Think of nostalgic thoughts as a little vacation, a long weekend so to speak. Those warm, pleasant memories can bolster our sense of well-being and strengthen our feelings of worth at having our own personal history and roots. “Experience it as a prized possession,” he advises. “When Humphrey Bogart says, ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ that’s nostalgia for you. We have it and nobody can take it away from us. It’s our diamond.”
And here’s my favorite part. Dr. Sedikides encourages looking to the future. “I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. So think about the features of nostalgia, warm memories of family, friends and special occasions; and lay the foundation for tomorrow’s nostalgia. Today’s good times will be tomorrow’s wonderful, sustaining memories. We can delight in the past, enjoy the present and look to the future.