Nostalgia Is a Shield Against Unhappiness
Happy memories have a uniquely protective power against a sad present.
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Ever since our earliest days together in our mid-20s, my wife has known about a mystical place called Lincoln City. It’s a modest beach town on the central-Oregon coast, but for me, it holds a Shangri-la-like mythos. Lincoln City is where I spent one blissful week each year as a boy, combing the rough beaches for agates, fishing off the local pier, and playing with matches in the firepit outside my aunt’s trailer home. These are the very happiest of my childhood memories.
So it was with great anticipation that, not long after marrying, I took my wife to visit the Best Place in the World. For me, it was every bit as glorious as I remembered. For her, not so much. She was very pregnant at the time and couldn’t stand the overpowering stench of dead fish. Given that she’s a native of warm Mediterranean shores, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she spent the weekend huddled in our motel room to avoid the howling wind. Ever since, she has considered Lincoln City to be a glitch in my psychological matrix—an unexplainable, almost pathological affection with no basis in reality.
Normally, my assessments of a place or experience differ little, if at all, from my wife’s. If she hates a dinner party, I probably do too. In this case, our wildly different perceptions of Lincoln City can be explained by one of the strangest and most overpowering feelings that humans possess: nostalgia. This brew of memory, emotion, and desire can twist our perceptions and judgments, turning even pain into pleasure—or dead fish into the sweetest French perfume. And that gives it a unique power to combat unhappiness.
Psychologists have defined nostalgia as a self-conscious, social emotion, bittersweet but predominantly positive. It develops out of happy memories mixed with a yearning for the past and the close relationships we had back then. Often, nostalgia involves sensory stimuli. For example, the smell of autumn leaves might provoke an intense longing for your childhood home. Neuroscientists have found that it is a complex cognitive phenomenon involving many parts of the brain, including some that are implicated in self-reflection, autobiographical memory, emotional regulation, and reward processing.
Almost everyone experiences nostalgia, although its object tends to vary throughout life. One survey conducted by the psychologist Krystine Irene Batcho found that younger people felt more nostalgia for pets, toys, and holidays than did older people, who felt it more strongly for music. I came of age in the 1980s, and even songs I found hopelessly annoying back then—say, the torturous 1982 hit “Maneater,” by Hall & Oates—can fill me with nostalgic sentiment.
As my colleague Julie Beck has written, nostalgia was originally viewed as an emotional malady when it was first defined in the late 17th century. And, crucially, it often occurs when people are experiencing negative moods or having bad experiences. Loneliness can be a trigger, as researchers found in 2008. Another is bad weather. Or Hall & Oates.
However, despite its association with negative emotions, nostalgia does not cause or exacerbate unhappiness. Rather, nostalgia is a defense response to unhappiness, one that brings relief from a negative mood. Psychologists writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2006 found that provoking nostalgia in experiments strengthened people’s social bonds, boosted their positive feelings about themselves, and improved their mood. Similar research has shown that when people feel nostalgia, it can bolster their sense of life’s meaning, lower an existential reaction to the idea of death, increase spirituality, and raise optimism.
Scholars aren’t sure exactly why nostalgia works; some have speculated that reminiscing about happy memories affirms “valued aspects of the self” in situations when we might otherwise feel lonely or unworthy. Either way, its emotional intensity allows the joy of the past to overpower the unpleasantness of the present, a little nugget of escapism that helps get us through the bad times.
No matter how nostalgia works, the science to date finds more than enough evidence to conclude that it is good for us. Given its benefits, we could all gain from nurturing it consciously so we’re better prepared to counteract bad moods when they arise. Here are three ways to do so.
1. Find a shortcut to your happy place.
Think of a memory of a specific place and time that gives you a feeling of warmth, the kind you reflexively turn to in moments of distress. Now find a picture or an object that reminds you of that place, and keep it at hand. Maybe it’s a song stored on your phone or a picture of yourself as a child, sitting in your grandmother’s lap.
Better yet, if possible, find something that holds a smell that stimulates the nostalgic glow. Researchers have found that scent-induced nostalgia can be especially effective at raising happiness, self-esteem, optimism, and social connectedness. You could find a candle that smells like a sprig of pine to remind you of your childhood Christmases, or air freshener that evokes cut grass from summer days gone by. I thought of keeping a dead fish in my desk at work to remind me of Lincoln City but feared my colleagues might not see the charm in that.
2. Anticipate your memories.
When you think back on the memories that give you nostalgia, they probably feel like kismet, which is part of why they’re so appealing. But your nostalgic memories can have the same effect even if they’re deliberately manufactured. Writing in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2019, researchers reported that when people anticipated feeling nostalgic about a current experience, they were more likely to experience that nostalgia later and get a corresponding boost in their feelings of social connection and sense of meaning.
You can run such an experiment in your own life. The next time you are having a good time with family or friends, take a mental snapshot, consciously committing the details to memory. You might even write them down. Note that these are the days that will someday make you say “Those were the days.” Later, when you are in a negative mood, you are much more likely to pull off this reminiscence.
3. Build traditions.
A researcher writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2021 made the case that nostalgia can help build strong bonds in groups. I’ve seen this happen myself: At Harvard, I regularly speak to alumni gatherings, including to retirees who graduated from business school 60 and even 70 years ago. The participants get intense joy from seeing their classmates and reminiscing about their old times together. They laugh at memories that are objectively mundane and tear up at simple stories of ordinary things they saw and did together.
We can forge more of these strong bonds in our families, friend groups, and workplaces by creating traditions and rituals and recalling them as the years go by. Create “holidays” around events you experienced with others in the past, such as sports you played as kids or the formation of a friend group in a big city after college. Mark the occasion regularly, so people have something to look forward to. The occasion you’re celebrating doesn’t even have to be purely wonderful; for what it’s worth, alumni seem to be just as nostalgic about terrible classes as they are about the good ones.
Perhaps because it is so powerful and complex, nostalgia has received magical treatment from poets and writers. “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect,” Marcel Proust wrote. On a fourth-century-B.C. Greek tablet we find the anonymous inscription “‘I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly / the cool water flowing from the Lake of Memory.’ / And of their own accord they will give you to drink from the holy spring.”
I have never read a poem about Lincoln City. But on a windy, chilly day, the sort that would normally make me grumpy, a waft of fish will bring me as much magic as any verse.