In a scene from the classic movie The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, attempts to console the von Trapp kids during a thunderstorm by recollecting what cheers her up, singing, “When the dog bites / When the bee stings / When I’m feeling bad / I simply remember my favorite things / And then I don’t feel so bad.”
The song itself, “My Favorite Things,” has repeatedly struck a chord (pun intended) with countless people over the years, especially during the holiday season—it’s been featured on several Christmas albums over the decades.
In a way, the song also illustrates how powerful nostalgia can be. But what, exactly, is nostalgia, and what causes us to experience it? When you take a closer look at what science says about the occurrence, you’ll see that it can benefit your well-being in countless ways.
As is the case with many intangible things, it’s often easier for people to explain nostalgia’s effect rather than what it actually is. If you asked five different people about it, they’d likely give five different explanations—so the objectivity of a dictionary helps. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”
Admittedly, some people are neither wistful nor sentimental about their past and would rather leave it behind, especially if it’s something they don’t look back fondly on. Then there’s the flip side of the coin: instead of merely yearning for a return to the past, some people attempt to live there in order to avoid their present reality, which can also lead to nostalgic depression. After all, that idealized past cannot be achieved again.
Whether you’re at either end of this spectrum or somewhere in the middle, though, you can’t escape nostalgic moments—even the simplest connection to a person, place, or thing from your past can send your mind back in time. (For example, to this day, the aroma of Dove soap reminds me of visits to my paternal grandmother’s home and gasoline of my maternal grandfather and his small business.)
Psychologists generally agree today that the overall experience of nostalgia is largely a positive one. But that wasn’t always the case—in fact, it was originally deemed a disease. Experts first started studying nostalgia centuries ago. Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in 1688 by combining a pair of New Latin words, nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), as a way to describe what he thought was a mental illness in Swiss soldiers, who showed acute signs of mental and physical distress while fighting in faraway places.
In short, they were homesick.
Of course, no one understood this at the time. The idea that nostalgia was an illness or disease, or at least a symptom of one, continued largely unabated into the twentieth century. Fortunately, psychology’s renewed interest in nostalgia beginning in the late 1900s resulted in a brand-new perspective—that it has a myriad of benefits.
The rewards of reminiscing
Experts say that there is usefulness to waxing nostalgic, as it can help us understand ourselves better and improve our lives.
It crystallizes who we are
As an advanced species, it’s natural for human beings to constantly make comparisons; it’s how our minds process everyday life. So looking back nostalgically at our past can help us understand who we really are and how far we’ve come, whether over the past five years or the past fifty years.
In short, nostalgia can fortify our identity, which experts say is particularly helpful during life shifts—such as milestones, moves, and family changes—because it provides an anchor in times of uncertainty. Comforting memories can serve as a salve to any anguish we may be experiencing in the present and be a beacon of hope for the future.
It makes us feel good
Though Hofer deemed nostalgia to be a depression-fueled disease, research today shows that quite the opposite may be true. Nostalgia can improve our self-esteem, make us more optimistic, and help us overcome negative feelings such as loneliness and anxiety. For example, when you reunite with family members and discuss holidays passed, you’re all being reminded that you’ve mattered to others for a long time, which will boost your mood whether you went into the season feeling merry or melancholy.
There are even physical benefits. For instance, looking back with fondness can make you feel more energetic and enthusiastic. And that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you’re feeling nostalgic? That can be quite literal: studies at the University of Southampton showed that such reminiscing may actually make people feel physically warmer.
It strengthens bonds with others
Even if the good old days don’t ever return in full, nostalgia reminds us about how special they were and how lucky we were to have had them—and the people we shared them with. When we feel nostalgic, we’re often compelled to smile at the thought of old friends or chat fondly with them about shared experiences, Besides making us feel good, this helps reinforce important connections in our lives, drawing us closer to the people we care about.
But the strengthening of bonds can go beyond our inner circles. Research shows that when we feel nostalgic, we also tend to be more charitable, compassionate, and empathetic to others. This means that embracing nostalgia, in a very real sense, can make the world a better place.
The holiday season is known for making spirits bright and turning scrooges into friendly and generous souls. But even if you feel a bit down, thinking back to past holidays and the fond memories that go along with them can be uplifting—as long as you keep a healthy balance between your past and present. In this way, nostalgia is a good example of how, when you simply remember your favorite things, you really don’t feel so bad.