It's a bitterly cold day and you’re struggling to find food for your clan, which includes several tiny, hungry cave babies. You've checked all your favorite spots to no avail and are now trudging deeper into the woods. Your feet are ice blocks. Your stomach is an angry demon of need. Giving up seems like a good option… hungry cave babies be damned. Then suddenly you think of that one time last spring when you and your band bagged a woolly mammoth. Everyone was so happy! You all feasted and celebrated for days. Suddenly you feel a little warmer and you’re convinced that if you can just get into the next valley you’ll find dinner. Instead of returning home empty-handed you persevere, your memory of those happier days pushing you forward. Watch out woolly mammoths, giant sloths, and other beasts, you think to yourself with a smile.
This little story is an example of how early humans may have used nostalgia as an adaptive strategy that helped them to stay positive, focused, and alive. Recent research has shown that for most people nostalgia is a positive coping mechanism that increases optimism and feelings of confidence, connectedness, and well-being. So turn on your favorite oldies mix as we learn how you can use the past to help you have a better present and future.
What do rotting corpses, human tragedies, and job interviews have in common? They are all situations nostalgia researchers have used to put their subjects in bad moods before prompting some of them to think nostalgic thoughts. So what happened? People who were asked to contemplate their own rotting corpses and then given a chance to think nostalgically were able to stop thinking about death and lighten up quicker than the control group. In another study nostalgic participants felt physically warmer than those who had regular, non-nostalgic thoughts. The poor suckers asked to contemplate a human tragedy also bounced back to their pre-tragedy moods more quickly by getting nostalgic.
Nostalgia is found in every culture and often has common themes: the thinker is the protagonist and overcomes adversity to save the day, there are good friends and family in supporting roles, and the memories are drawn from times when life felt more safe and ordered. Many people use nostalgic thoughts as a coping mechanism when they are feeling bored, anxious, or depressed. This tool is especially helpful during transitional times in life, such as young adulthood and old age. Kids as young as 7 use thoughts of bygone pony rides and cotton candy to help themselves feel better.
If you’re worried that nostalgic thoughts will get you stuck in the past and make you shy away from the now, research is showing that just the opposite will probably happen. “When you become nostalgic, you don't become past oriented. You want to go out and do things,” said nostalgia researcher Constantine Sedikides. Nostalgic thoughts help us remember the times we triumphed over adversity, the support we've received from people who care about us, and the unexpected delights that life can deliver. These memories help us believe that good stuff can happen again, even if we are standing in line at the DMV on a rainy day. Sedikides and his colleagues are also careful to warn that nostalgia does not work for everyone and may be harmful for obsessive and avoidant people.
How to use nostalgia to improve your life:
Choose and refine your top three nostalgic thoughts and have them ready for stressful days.
Music is one of the easiest ways to induce a nostalgic state, so have a good mix for tough times.
Fight the urge to compare the past to the present. Enjoy the past for what it was and the future for what it can be.
Use ‘anticipatory nostalgia’ in your everyday life. This means noticing and remembering the good times and planning your life to maximize positive happenings.
Practice couples nostalgia. Happy couples get nostalgic early and often and are able to use this tool to get through the rough patches..
Beware of nostalgia's dark underbelly: marketers using the emotional power of nostalgia to sell you stuff you don’t want or need.