The Surprising Sources of Nostalgia
It’s remarkable how complex and powerful an emotion nostalgia can be.
The door to our storage room sticks just a little; one of the many consequences of finishing the basement myself. I pushed the door open with its characteristic *click* and flicked on the lights.
I was on a mission to find a can of Mandarin Oranges for the Hawaiian Haystacks I planned for dinner.
While searching for the elusive Mandarin Oranges (which I didn’t find), I stumbled upon the 9-inch long wood carving of my name that my mother made around 1984; a trinket I haven’t seen in more than 15 years.
Not many things induce feelings of nostalgia in me, but I found myself standing in the storage room, imagining my mom as she carved my name and added the little droplets of paint to the front.
I was young enough when she created this that I don’t remember a time without it.
She’s been gone for 29 years. That’s more than twice as many years as I was with her. Some relationships are so powerful that the impressions left and lessons taught linger for a long time. I suppose some of them will be with me the rest of my life.
It’s remarkable how complex and powerful an emotion nostalgia can be. In a 2012 study in Emotion magazine, the authors describe nostalgia as a “complex emotion that involves past-oriented cognition and mixed affective signature. The emotion is often triggered by encountering a familiar smell, sound, or keepsake, by engaging in conversations, or by feeling lonely.”
Then, in a separate study conducted in 2020 (as reported in Frontiers in Psychology), Taylor A. FioRito and Clay Routledge noted that nostalgia also involves “future-oriented cognition”.
The phrases “past-oriented cognition” and “future-oriented cognition” are at odds with one another. It’s interesting to consider, however, that if the past and future tugging are equivalent, does nostalgia somehow make us more present in the moment? Or, does that tug put us in a position where nostalgia does more harm than good?
I haven’t read all the science (past and present) about that. We can be assured that future science will also attempt to explain the benefit or detriment of nostalgia.
From a 2016 study, Heidi Moawad noted, “The reward centers of the brain, . . .are activated during nostalgic activity. This reward center involvement explains the very common phenomena of feeling pleasant emotions upon hearing a song from the past, even if the song was not necessarily a favorite song at the time, it was prevalent in popular culture or in a person’s life.”
Pardon the pun, but that really struck a chord with me. In 1995, a new radio station came online in my hometown. For reasons I’ll never know, they played “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer for 24-hours straight. With our Walkmans (Walkmen?) in tow, my brother and I listened for as many hours as we could, even while engaged in other activities. That’s another mystery: why we thought it would be a good idea to subject ourselves to that for as many hours as we did.
The nostalgia that comes with that memory is powerful. I remember being out on the patio of my maternal grandparents’ home. We were in the heart of summer. We played games and chatted while listening to the same song over and over again, occasionally stopping our activities to sing along with the music.
My maternal grandparents both died a long time ago. Accompanying the memory of the music is the huge number of wonderful memories I have being in their home.
Taking the contrary position, Moawad also notes, “Nostalgia can be so easily provoked that it is possible to become addicted to the pleasure of nostalgia, just as a person can become addicted to any activity that stimulates the reward centers of the brain. Nostalgia can be used excessively as a crutch and the positive feelings of nostalgia may serve as a substitute for living in the present-day if current, real life troubles take more effort than a person can tolerate.”
Like so many things in life, nostalgia can be a force for good or ill in our lives. The occasional trip down memory lane can be cathartic and wonderful, but living in the past is detrimental to present well-being.
How often you engage in nostalgic episodes is an entirely personal decision. Sometimes, I’m not sure they’re even avoidable.
So, the next time you feel tugged toward the past, perhaps it’s a good opportunity to ask the question what you can learn from such a powerful emotional experience in the past that can help shape your future for the better.
Thanks for reading!
Married to my best friend. Father to five exuberant children. Fledgling entrepreneur. Writer. Software developer. Inventory management expert.