Believe it or not, nostalgia was once considered a disease.
If you had it, you might be “treated” with leeches, opium, blood-letting, bullying or even bodily harm. A Russian general once threatened to bury alive any soldier who succumbed to wistful longing and affection for the past!
Over the centuries, there have been many theories about the cause and nature of nostalgia.
In late 17th century Switzerland, nostalgia was believed to be a brain disease caused by demons—or perhaps a result of brain and eardrum damage caused by the constant clanging of cowbells in the Alps.
By the 19th century, nostalgia was categorized as a mental illness and a form of depression. But attitudes changed by the late 20th century. That’s when marketing researchers recognized that nostalgia could be a powerful force in driving consumer preferences.
In our century, the latest research shows that nostalgia can actually be good for you—especially in stressful times like these.
The benefits of nostalgia
Remembering the good old days can be fun. And it can improve your mental health.
Looking back on the people and things you cherished can bring you comfort and make you feel less alone. It can help you feel connected to yourself and to your past. And it can help you cope with the present.
Cognitive psychologist Matt Johnson writes that “engaging in nostalgia fosters a stronger sense of meaning in one’s life… [It] helps us make sense of where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten to where we are. It helps us tell a meaningful story of our life.”
Research has found that nostalgia can reduce stress and protect against depression and anxiety. It can also offer hope and inspiration.
North Dakota State University psychology professor Clay Routledge notes that “nostalgia mobilizes us for the future. It increases our desire to pursue important life goals and our confidence that we can accomplish them.”
For people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, nostalgia and reminiscence therapy can improve memory and psychological well-being.
For the rest of us, nostalgia can make it easier to follow the advice of the inimitable Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
So go ahead and treat yourself to a bit of nostalgia.
Watch a favourite old movie. Bake some of your grandma’s cookies. Pull out those old photo albums and stroll back through time. Or pull out a recorder and capture the life story of an elderly loved one. (From a safe distance, of course.)
One day—although it’s hard to imagine now—perhaps we’ll even be nostalgic for these too-quiet days of COVID-19.
Stranger things have happened.
Johnson, Matt. “The Psychological Benefits of Nostalgia.” Psychology Today (blog), May 26, 2020.
Johnson, Nicole. “The Surprising Way Nostalgia Can Help Us Cope with the Pandemic.” National Geographic (website), July 21, 2010.
MacDonald, Hal. “Using Nostalgia to Cope with COVID.” Psychology Today (blog), April 11, 2020.
Wolff, Jennifer. “California Town Uses Reminiscence Therapy to Help Dementia Sufferers.” AARP Bulletin, December 8, 2018.