Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

What is nostalgia good for?

Remembering past times

By Stephen Robb
BBC News

A Standard Life study suggests 28 to 40-year-olds don't plan for the future because they prefer to reminisce about past times. Yet experts say nostalgia can give meaning to our seemingly dull lives.

What was the most recent film you saw? Chocolate you bought? Fashion trend you noticed? Or friend you contacted on Facebook?

"If it was Star Trek, a Wispa, shoulder pads or school friend, then don't fear, you are entirely typical of someone who lived through the Noughties," says a report from financial services provider Standard Life, which concludes that more than any other decade, the 2000s were very retro.

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Businesses and advertisers have known for years that nostalgia sells, that the products popular during a person's youth will influence their buying habits throughout their lifetime.

"But they didn't know why, and they perhaps didn't care - that was their endgame, to figure out how to sell things," says psychologist Clay Routledge, of North Dakota State University.

In recent years, psychologists have been trying to analyse the powerful and enduring appeal of our own past - what Mr Routledge calls the "psychological underpinnings of nostalgia".

"Why does it matter? Why would a 40-year-old man care about a car he drove when he was 18?" he asks. It matters, quite simply, because nostalgia makes us feel good.

Heart sick

Once nostalgia was considered a sickness - the word derives from the Greek "nostos" (return) and "algos" (pain), suggesting suffering due to a desire to return to a place of origin.

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A 17th Century medical student coined the term "nostalgia" for anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home, although some military doctors believed their problems were specific to the Swiss and caused by the Alpine racket of cowbells.

Understanding has moved on somewhat since, with dedicated research in recent years suggesting that nostalgia is "good psychological medicine".

Studies by Mr Routledge, along with colleagues at the University of Southampton, have found that remembering past times improves mood, increases self-esteem, strengthens social bonds and imbues life with meaning.

Not bad for just a few minutes' daydreaming about scoring the winning goal for the school team, aged 12, or reminiscing about a family caravanning trip in a balmy summer gone by.

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"Most of our days are often filled with with routine activities that aren't particularly significant - shopping for groceries, commuting to work and so forth," says Mr Routledge.

"Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful - to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning."

Because the psychology of nostalgia is a relatively new field of research, there is no evidence to show whether particular generations are becoming more nostalgic.

Dr Tim Wildschut, of the University of Southampton, stresses that nostalgia is a "fundamental human emotion" and "not something that changes overnight".

Rose-tinted view

But Damian Barr, who wrote the 2004 book Get It Together about struggling 20-somethings, fears the generation that reached adulthood in the 1990s and 2000s could find themselves handicapped by excessive nostalgia.

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"We are less prepared for our difficult present by having had a very easy time of it when we were very young," he says. "We grew up in a boom - we are living in a bust."

Facing a present defined by recession, the threat of international terrorism and warnings of environmental doom, young adults are fixated on the happy associations from a more hopeful past, says Mr Barr, who helped develop Standard Life's report.

It is a paradox of technological advances such as the internet and the proliferation of TV channels enable us to wallow in the past. Digital channels replay favourite shows, and countless fansites are devoted to yesteryear's bands and confectionery.

"We are going back to the bands, the TV shows, the films - all the kinds of things we enjoyed at school and at university. And the market is responding to that - bands are reforming, TV shows being remade."

But Mr Barr warns the past can be fun in measured doses and for the right reasons.

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"You shouldn't revisit it as a way of avoiding the present or not thinking about the future. If you spend too much time thinking about the past, you are simply not going to be prepared for the future socially or emotionally."

While highlighting the benefits of nostalgia, a 2006 report in Psychology Today magazine has warned that "overdoing reminiscence" risks an absence of joy derived from the present, and a reliance on past memories to provide happiness.

Thinking about the past could also trigger painful emotions, such as grief for lost loved ones or feeling like a has-been if recalling a distant career success.

Instead, focus on the positivity of the experience, rather than feeling bad because it happened so long ago.

List cherished memories
Find photos or mementos from happy times
Close your eyes and think about what is outside the "picture frame" to conjure subtle details
Reminiscing with people from your past strengthens relationships
Take mental snapshots and save mementos of happy times for future nostalgia
Source: Psychology Today

"People who see each good experience as permanently enriching are more likely to get a mood boost," the article noted.

Nostalgia is usually involuntary and triggered by negative feelings - most commonly loneliness - against which it acts as a sort of natural anti-depressant by countering those feelings.

But, just as businesses aim to exploit nostalgia in consumers, psychologists suggest people could employ nostalgia "workouts" to enjoy its benefits.

Mr Routledge describes tests in which people suffering worries that their lives lack meaning spend just five minutes writing about an experience that made them feel nostalgic.

"People who were low in meaning in life who were then given the nostalgia 'workout' did have a significant increase in psychological wellbeing. They felt more alive and energetic, their life [felt] worthwhile."

"But one of the interesting things about nostalgia is that most people engage in it spontaneously without requiring a 'workout' regime."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Like Horace Slughorn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we can modify our memories. In our memories we are probably all funnier, more popular, braver and better than we ever were in real life at the time. I don't think Facebook helps - I can't see any of your old school chums popping up and saying "actually, you were a complete waste of space at school" because you might do the same to them, so we embark on a kind of complicit airbrush and re-write of our personal histories. And then we buy the re-issued music to reinforce the new version of history; the music is re-issued for the same reasons - a couple of old band members get to reminiscing, and before you know it Tenpole Tudor's Greatest Hits is unleashed on the world.
Ian, Walsall

Whilst I was reading this article my colleague was getting me a Wispa bar. I also want to get my niece a My Little Pony. I agree that people under 40 are probably prone to nostalgia as everything seems bleak at the moment. As children of the 80s we grew up in comfortable times and now can't even afford to buy a house.
Gemma, Sidcup

Looking back can be cool if it is an occasional pastime. I've split from my recent partner and one of the reasons is that he will not move into the present day or future, wants to relive the 80s with his Dr Martens, re-watching Brush Strokes and ska music. What about the miners strikes, Falklands and political agendas? Like everything in the past - it's only the good bits we recall.
Julie, Fife

"Once nostalgia was considered a sickness... Understanding has moved on somewhat since." Maybe, but I preferred it the way it was back then.
James, Leeds

The essence of who we are as individuals is based on our own unique accumulation of memories. Even looking to the future and saying "been there - done that" would not be possible without reliving the experience to some extent.
ChrisJk, UK

Hearing one word does it for me and the nostalgia all comes flooding back - to a bygone era when there were no bills to pay, no daily hassles, no wondering what was for tea, well, no stress really! The word?
Dave Wicks, Chippenham

The other night I was listening to a song I hadn't heard in about 20 years, and I still knew all the words. People are inclined to be nostalgic because it takes us back to a time when things were far simpler and our impressions fresh. I have recently caught up with a great many old friends via Facebook and am enjoying the memories they trigger, but also pleased to hear what they are doing now and how their lives have changed over the years. On a personal note, although I have some souvenirs, I burned all my teenage diaries a couple of years ago; I saw no need to preserve the ramblings of my teenaged self as I am much happier with the way I am now than I was then.
Kate, Oxford, UK

This article is absolutely spot on. I hit 40 last year and, over the past two or three years, a wave of nostalgia has overwhelmed me, from buying lots of 80s compilation CDs to trying to buy my favourite game (Treasure Of The Pharaohs) on eBay. Add to that Facebook helping me get in touch with old school friends and I am routinely being sent back to a time when life was easier and, dare I say it, a lot more fun.
Mat Fletcher, Essex

When I was 35, and prior to getting married, my fiancee asked that I got rid of any photos of previous girlfriends. I looked at my old albums and decided I didn't need any of them, got a bin-bag and dumped every photo I possessed. I've never regretted it.
Magus, London

I once had a purge of photos. At another time I also lost a lot of stuff (diaries and photos) thanks to someone else's ignorance. Far from seeing it a release I feel as if there's a big hole in my life. It may seem good at the time - but these things have a habit of coming back at you. Your "nostalgia" is part of your soul. Without it? Well.
Patrick, Lancaster

It does worry me that my generation is so backward looking, but I don't blame us in a lot of ways. The future is always predicted to be so bleak, so full of potential disaster, that can you blame us for focussing on a time before all of that worry? If SOME positivity could penetrate the relentless media view that we're all doomed to desperate future then perhaps we'd pull our heads out of the sand. But until then I don't see anything changing.
Lisa, London

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