Researcher Offers World Mental Health Day Tips for Tapping Into Power of Nostalgia

By Tom McLaughlin

We’ve heard the age-old adages to promote positive mental health: “Don’t dwell on the past.” “Let it go.” “Stay in the present.”

Abeyta says that nostalgia – a sentimental or wistful longing for the past – can serve a “restorative function.”

However, says Andrew Abeyta, there are actually powerful psychological benefits to looking back.

More specifically, says the Rutgers University–Camden researcher, nostalgia – a sentimental or wistful longing for the past – can serve a “restorative function.” When people are lonely, he says, nostalgia can make them feel like they are loved, connected, or have a sense of social belonging.

“Nostalgia can also make us feel happy or bolster a sense of meaning in life,” says the assistant professor of psychology. “Oftentimes, nostalgic events such as achievements highlight the best aspects of one’s life, so nostalgia increases self-esteem.”

Just in time for the observance of World Mental Health Day on Sunday, Oct. 10, Abeyta offers some research-driven tips for tapping into the power of nostalgia.

One interesting finding that he is learning in the lab, he says, is that the positive benefits of nostalgia seem to be most pronounced when people are effortful about it. In other words, says Abeyta, instead of just letting everyday experiences trigger nostalgia, it helps to set aside time each day to be mindful of nostalgic events and connect with these feelings.

“It’s a similar experience to gratitude,” he explains. “You can feel gratitude naturally if someone does something nice for you, or you can sit down and think about all the things that you are thankful for, much like how we do at Thanksgiving.”

Nostalgic reflections can be “invigorating,” he continues, so it could prove beneficial to make it part of one’s daily routine. To jog one’s memory, he says, there are apps such as Timehop, which can help “transport” you back to a nostalgic place.

The Rutgers University–Camden researcher says that it helps to set aside time each day to be mindful of nostalgic events and connect with these feelings.

The Rutgers University–Camden researcher acknowledges that it could be difficult to be mindful about nostalgia through the course of our everyday lives. He recommends playing a song, putting on a TV show or movie, or enjoying a meal to invoke memories.

“It feels odd to say, from 1 to 2 p.m., I am going to be nostalgic,” he says. “However, those sensory inputs, such as music, smells, and tastes, can have a powerful effect of putting us in the mood to be nostalgic.”

These reflections, he notes, can also inspire people who suffer from loneliness and a lack of social belonging with the tools needed to restore their social confidence and the motivation to connect – or reconnect – with others.

“When people engage in nostalgic reverie, we are usually thinking about our relationships – the people with whom we share our most cherished memories,” says the Cherry Hill resident. “We are reflecting on our special accomplishments or personal successes, but we remember being surrounded by our loved ones, and we feel loved.”

Abeyta says that nostalgic reflections can inspire people who suffer from loneliness and a lack of social belonging with the tools needed to restore their social confidence and the motivation to connect – or reconnect – with others.

Nostalgia, he says, can also be a great way to reconnect with others via shared memories. He recalls, for instance, meeting with a group of childhood friends on a Zoom call recently. Despite growing apart over the past 10 years, reminiscing about the good ol’ days in high school and college seemed to break the ice.

Moreover, nostalgia can help reverse negative mindsets and put people in a positive mood, which he notes can be particularly powerful during the grieving process.

“When we think about times someone close to us has passed away, all of these memories flood back to us,” he says. “It can be particularly helpful in those moments.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher is quick to note, however, it doesn’t necessarily need to be tragedy, stress, or loneliness that sparks this nostalgic reflection. With the holidays fast approaching, he says, it can also help us focus on the more enjoyable aspects of spending time with family.

“When we are being nostalgic, we typically reflect on how negative experiences have shaped us in a positive way,” he says. “So perhaps having this jolt of positivity that comes from nostalgia can help put people in the right state of mind to get the most out of interactions with family members we aren’t too excited about.”

Posted in: Research Highlights

Comments are closed.