We are approaching the holiday season, a time of heightened nostalgia, bringing out more intense emotions of happiness and also feeling sad.
It’s a time filled with pageantry, traditions, history, family memories. We preserve recipes, memorabilia and so much more. It’s also natural to feel a longing for times gone by—a childhood spent singing carols or meals spent with now departed loved ones.
But let’s dig a bit deeper to understand nostalgia. It’s always fascinating when scientists probe deeper to find answers to the ‘why.’ Only in recent years has nostalgia raised interest in the neurosciences community.
Meaning of Nostalgia
Cambridge Dictionary defines nostalgia as “a feeling of pleasure and sometimes slight sadness at the same time as you think about things that happened in the past: Hearing her voice again filled him with nostalgia.”
Without being aware, we often say that ‘this cake or that music reminds me of . . . ‘
Brief science review
Hutson, M. reports in Scientific American: Why Nostalgia Is Good for You-The bittersweet emotion increases feelings of vitality ( November 2016):
recently scientists have explored the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia and found that nostalgia serves a positive function, improving mood and possibly mental health.
Knapton, S., Science Editor of The Telegraph Science, summarizes a study by The National Trust and The University of Surrey: Your brain on nostalgia: first study shows neurons light up in meaningful places (October 2017):
. . . for the first time, scientists have recorded that nostalgic reaction in the brain using MRI scans. Whether it is wandering through woodland where we once played as children, or paddling in the same seas as past summer holidays, going back to meaningful places sparks significant mental and emotional changes which boosts wellbeing. . .
They proved the physical and emotional benefits of place, far beyond any research that has been done before. This means how meaningful places generate significant response in areas of the brain and how deep rooted this connection truly is.
The University of Southampton in England is one of the leaders in documenting the impact of nostalgia. Among their findings, they suggest that collective memories make us feel a sense of belonging. For example, the place where a person gets married carries a far greater emotional importance than the ring they receive on the day, or photographs from the wedding.
Experts used to warn against living in the past, but the new studies show that memories have positive effects on coping skills and mood. Nostalgia gives us our roots and helps us empathize.
Major Benefits of Nostalgia
- Feel more connected. Collective memories make us feel a sense of belonging, e.g., we travel far to be together with family to celebrate special life events or holidays.
- Understand yourself better. Looking back also creates more continuity in our lives. We learn how our background influences us today.
- Discover deeper meaning in your life. Naturally, we tend to focus on important times and people. This makes it easier to see our overall direction and purpose.
- Increase your self-confidence. Those who regularly indulge in nostalgia also report greater self-esteem. This is a great opportunity to reflect on your accomplishments and witness how you thrive through adversity.
- Boost your mood. Recalling good times is an instant mood booster.
- Strengthen your coping skills. There are also practical advantages to looking back. If you tend to be nostalgic, you may also demonstrate greater resiliency.
- Brings a feeling of vitality – energy and spirit.
We can conclude that nostalgia lifts our spirits, and strengthen our relationships!
There are many ways people elicit nostalgia—looking at photographs, cooking certain meals, sharing stories or playing music. And yes, we may shed some tears at times and be troubled by a sense of loss. If that happens, we can shift our emotions to be mindful of how those events or people have enriched our life.
How I Harnessed the Power of Nostalgia to Find Happiness – Personal Story
My grandmother, the only one I had, lived with us. Unfortunately, she always was a very unhappy person, did not like children; at least that was my feeling.
Later in life I understood the incredible hardship she endured throughout life: lived through two world wars, extremely difficult marriage, husband (my grandfather) left her to fend for herself with four little children. There was no support for her. She had to find a way to survive.
But she was an amazing cook. I loved to watch her cook and bake in a small coal stove, though I was never allowed to help her except do the dishes. This was after WWII, in the late 1940’s – 1950’s.
During the Christmas Season she would get out her cook book to bake the most delicious cookies, a great variety. Again, I was not allowed to help, just to watch.
That cookbook was magic to me and left an early powerful imprint in me: “One day I want to have that cookbook!” It contained the mysteries of creating these delicious cookies.
Fast forward: Long after I had left home, emigrated, started my own family and my grandmother had passed, I asked my mother about that cookbook. It came in the mail. When I unpacked it, I was overcome with incredible emotions, sad and joy.
Touching this cookbook, filled with my grandmother’s handwritten recipes, dating back to around 1920 . . . symbolizes all who she really was: her care and love for family was ‘in the kitchen and her hands.’
The grandmother who I did not like and I felt who did not like me, who I had watched creating amazing meals, cakes, cookies – often from very sparse supplies – had passed along her greatest gift to me: I love cooking, creating meals from simple supplies, and enjoyed baking for my family and now grandkids.