There’s a recent article in the New York Times about nostalgia and its role in human psychology. It’s an interesting article in which the author takes us briefly through the idea of nostalgia, melancholia and its relationship to psychiatric diagnoses. The prevailing wisdom is that nostalgia is a bad thing, making us feel lonelier and more isolated, and can lead to mental disease. But that’s changing, in large part, thanks to Constantine Sedikides, who pioneered the field of psychological study.
Actually, it turns out, nostalgia is good for your mental health, allowing you to feel comfort in strange surroundings. By reminding you of troubled times before and showing you that you’ve overcome them just fine. Or by reminding you of good past experiences. And with friends, reminding you of the experiences you’ve shared. Nostalgia can cheer you up and bring you happiness when you’re down, instead of the other way around.
The natural conclusion, which they posit in the article later on, is that one strategy is to purposefully create situations which will build nostalgia. A related field, which Daniel Khaneman talks about here at TED. Point is since we never recall experiences truly accurately, we should instead strategize for optimal memories, not experience. (Side note: Daniel Khaneman recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics but he’s actually a Psychologist. He’s got a book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that goes into lots of detail about the strange ways in which our mind really works, versus how we think it does.
My favorite line in the original article is “Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.” This story is from 1688, but nostalgia has been observed around the world across human history. Most people say they experience nostalgia at least once a week.
A recent podcast is along the same lines, The Memory Palace: Origin Stories. It’s about a man thinking back on the stories his family used to tell. They were mostly set around the time the matriarch and patriarch (his grandparents) met. And eventually the stories were shortened to a few words that, for someone who knows the stories very well, would bring on all of the old nostalgia, a warm feeling and a smile. I particularly like the Origin Stories angle, since it’s not far from those stories to a cultural Mythos, if the experience is widespread enough. From legend and myth to faith and religion is a conceivable jump, looking back in the history of mankind. You can see its potential role in superstition, shamanistic practices, ancestor worship and even polytheism. A couple of good books, “The Evolution of God” and “The Faith Instinct” speak to this, arguing that this process is entirely natural. More reason why nostalgia shouldn’t be sloughed off as just a road to depression.