The Power of Nostalgia

We may not know how to measure – or harness – the power of nostalgia, but there’s no denying the intensity of memories, traditions and rituals in altering our moods, changing perspective or helping us through difficult times.

Nostalgic “triggers,” especially at the holidays, can include a wide variety of sensory stimuli, from the smell of a pie baking or turkey roasting, to a favorite song or sound, decorations on the wall, a family member’s or friend’s voice or the crinkling of wrapping paper being torn off a package. Familiar objects, such as serving dishes, plates or glasses can connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family, alive and past. And visiting a home or valued place from our past can seemingly transport us through time.

The recognition or recollection of these items helps keep the memories of the past alive, and by sharing them with newer generations we perpetuate traditions, stories and loved ones. Regardless of details, the rituals we observe, similar in many families yet unique for each, bring us pleasure, joy, feelings of love and goodwill, or alternately, melancholy or even intense sorrow.

That’s the rub: while it can have amazing healing powers, nostalgia isn’t always a panacea for what ails us. Bad memories, reminders of lost friends and family members, past jobs and homes, all are retained. While we may not think about them from day to day, our power of recall is strong and, when properly stimulated, capable of exacting chemical reactions in our brains and bodies that influence feelings and behavior.

Good Memories and Bad

Clinical psychologists often view nostalgia – defined by the Oxford dictionary as a “sentimental longing for the past” – as a symptom of depression. As early as the 17th century, nostalgia was considered to have a demonic origin, and it was later classified as a type of melancholia or psychosis. But researchers today also see nostalgia’s positive attributes and ability to calm, heal and help people cope.

Psychologist and American Psychological Association member Krystine Batcho, PhD, is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and an expert on nostalgia. Her research finds that people who are prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles.

People feel more nostalgic during the holidays, Batcho explains, because many memories are reawakened and relationships renewed. Batcho theorizes that for many, holidays bring back memories of simpler times along with the sense of the security of childhood or the carefree feelings of being young, with fewer of the worries and stress that accompany responsibilities.

“Most often,” she adds, “holidays remind us of people who have played important roles in our lives and the activities we shared with them. This is one reason why people who are away from home are especially likely to feel nostalgic during the holidays and why so many people travel to be with family and friends.”

Unpacking Our Memories

Like anniversaries and other temporal landmarks, holidays remind us of special times and help us keep track of what has changed and what has remained the same in our lives, and in ourselves.

During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure or misfortune in the past. When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong and productive at times in our past.

Our sense of who we are is closely related to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Research has shown that nostalgia can strengthen a sense of social connectedness by helping us appreciate what we have meant to others as well as what others have meant to us. Nostalgic memories can help someone who is away from home or someone who is mourning the death of a family member by reminding us that the bonds we share with those we love survive physical separation.

Researchers studying memory and reward systems in the brain have focused on the mesolimbic system, which is responsible for determining if something is worth retaining in our memory. Many scientists in the field study dopamine, the chemical released when our brain is rewarding us for doing something we enjoy or find interesting or challenging. When dopamine is released, it helps our brains “remember” things more effectively, improving recall. The limbic system, which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, also plays a role in the processing and storage of memories, emotions and the “emotional memories” that result when a memory is stored during a highly emotional state.

Researchers studying the connection between nostalgia and wellness have created a scale used to rate the value and intensity of nostalgia. For example, nostalgia has been found to:

  • Reconnect us with our roots
  • Provide continuity in our lives
  • Help us find meaning and identity
  • Counteract loneliness
  • Decrease boredom
  • Ease anxiety
  • Increase generosity and tolerance toward others
  • Increase intimacy
  • Act as a buffer to depression
  • Enhance feelings of physical warmth

While we can’t control how nostalgic reactions will affect us, we generally appreciate the recall of familiar sights, sounds and smells. These powerful memory stimulants can bring us much joy, reduce stress and anxiety and increase overall wellness. The holidays are a treasure trove of these memories, and another reason we look forward to this time of year, and hate to see it pass too quickly.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!