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Commentary: A little nostalgia goes a long way

Who doesn't love to reminisce from time to time? It can be a good thing, says health columnists.
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Going down memory lane isn't such a bad thing, says health columnist. Photo submitted.

Tracing the medical history of nostalgia involves a sharp U-turn. Centuries ago, it was considered a psychopathological disorder. Still today, nostalgia can be associated with negative feelings and sadness. But researchers are reaching new conclusions about the health benefits of wistful affection for the past.

We recently witnessed the medicinal effects firsthand on a special family trip. A full seventy years later, we returned to the majestic Manoir Richelieu, a historic hotel northeast of Quebec City on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. As the former hotel doctor-in-residence, and the accompanying story-seeking family, we were treated to a wonderful walk down memory lane.

It was hard not to notice the spring in our steps, the smiles, and the upbeat mood.

Nostalgia comes from the Greek root “nostos” meaning “home” and “algos” meaning “pain”. Distinct from “homesickness”, which strikes when far from home and justifiably induces sadness, loneliness, and other depressing feelings, nostalgia can swing either way. One can be sad to recall “the good ole days”, or nostalgia can stimulate reward pathways in our brains.

Many studies have demonstrated the way memories make us feel good.

A study published in Psychological Science found nostalgia boosts perceptions of social support and highly resilient people use nostalgia as a tool to beat back loneliness.

Another study published in the journal Appetite examined how nostalgia influences attitudes about food. Experiments showed people consumed more and reported more favorable attitudes towards healthy food when feeling nostalgic. Nostalgia also diminished the consumption of unhealthy food.

Another interesting study linked nostalgia to creativity. Two groups of students were invited to write for five minutes. One group was instructed to think about an ordinary experience while the other was asked to think about something nostalgic. The latter group produced far more creative writing.

Organizational effectiveness gurus took note. A report in the Harvard Business Review recommended employers use nostalgia to make workers feel socially supported, energized, and confident, noting how this leads to more workplace creativity.

But watch the pocketbook, because other research points to the effect of nostalgia as a trigger for charitable giving, built on an abundance of empathy that comes along with happy personal associations.

Count on Shakespeare to have a take. He wrote in Othello, “To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.”

Dr. Constantine Sedikides, Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Southampton in the U.K., has spent his career studying nostalgia. He would agree with Shakespeare’s recommendation to move on to new mischief.

Dr. Sedikides says he has adopted strategies for increasing nostalgia in his own life. “I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. “We call this anticipatory nostalgia.”

Our recent visit to the Manoir Richelieu helped our family connect with the past and share experience across generations. But you don’t have to travel to achieve the same benefit.

Try taking ten minutes to reflect on a special place or time. Look back into your past and recall an occasion when you achieved a goal, when you first met a special friend, or even something recent that you enjoyed. Then, having immersed yourself in the memory, check to see how you feel. You should notice a sense of happiness.

Another technique is to meander through the pages of an old photo album.

Need motivation? A study of people who regularly thought about past positive experiences observed the added benefit of leaving them better able to cope with the inevitable stresses in life.

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