Nostalgia—How to Enjoy Reflecting on the Past

and how to deal with the negative effects of being too nostalgic.

Man and woman looking at nostalgic photos.

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Nostalgia is a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. Nostalgia is usually triggered by something reminding an individual of an experience from the past. It is often characterized as a longing or desire to return to a former time or place.

Nostalgia can also be thought of as "the memory of happiness," as it is often associated with happy memories from the past. It can be a source of comfort in times of sadness or distress.

However, nostalgia is not just about happy memories; it can also be about longing for a time when things were simpler, or for a time when we felt more connected to others.

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Nostalgia Used to Be Considered a Neurological Illness

Nostalgia is a relatively new concept. The word was first coined in 1688 by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who defined it as a neurological illness of continually thinking about one's homeland and longing for return.

It was not until the 19th century that nostalgia began to be seen as a positive sentiment, rather than a pathological condition. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, for example, saw nostalgia as a way of reconnecting with our past and understanding our present. For Jung, nostalgia was a way to access the "collective unconscious"—the shared history and experiences that we all have as human beings.

During the First World War, nostalgia was once again associated with illness, as soldiers away at battle longed for the comforts of home. However, after the war ended, nostalgia once again became a positive sentiment.

Examples of Nostalgia From Popular Culture

There are many examples of nostalgia in popular culture. The film It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is often cited as one of the most nostalgic films ever made. The film tells the story of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), a man who is considering suicide on Christmas Eve.

However, he is visited by an angel who shows him how different his life, and the lives of those around him, would have been if he had never been born. The film's sentimental portrayal of small-town life in the early 20th century has helped to make it a holiday classic.

The television series The Wonder Years (1988-1993) is another example of nostalgia. The show tells the story of Kevin Arnold (played by Fred Savage), a boy growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. The show is notable for its use of voice-over narration from Kevin's older self, which gives the show a nostalgic feeling.

The song "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston (originally released in 1992) is often cited as a nostalgic song. The song was written by Dolly Parton and is about a woman who is leaving her lover. However, she promises to always love him, even though they are no longer together. The song's sentimental lyrics and melody have helped to make it one of the most popular love songs of all time.

Types of Nostalgia

There are two types of nostalgia: positive and negative.

  • Positive nostalgia is characterized by happy, rose-tinted memories of the past. It is often associated with feelings of warmth, happiness, and comfort.
  • Negative nostalgia, on the other hand, is characterized by bittersweet or even painful memories of the past.It is often associated with longing, sadness, and regret.

Nostalgia can also be divided into three different categories: personal, social, and cultural.

  • Personal nostalgia is characterized by memories of specific people or events from one's own life.
  • Social nostalgia is characterized by memories of a time when one felt more connected to others.
  • Cultural nostalgia is characterized by memories of a time when one felt more connected to their culture.

Benefits of Being Nostalgic

Nostalgia has been shown to have a number of benefits. For example, nostalgia has been shown to:

  • Boost mood
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Provide a sense of social support
  • Help people to cope with difficult life transitions, such as divorce, retirement, and death

Nostalgia can also have positive effects on physical health. For example, nostalgia has been shown to boost immune function and reduce stress levels.Nostalgia can also help to increase life satisfaction and reduce anxiety.

Can You Be Too Nostalgic?—Negative Effects

However, nostalgia can also have negative effects. For example, nostalgia can:

  • Lead to a sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Cause people to dwell on the past and become unhappy with the present
  • Make people less likely to take action in the present

How to Avoid the Negative Effects of Nostalgia

There are a few things you can do to avoid the negative effects of nostalgia:

  • Think about the present moment. What are you doing right now that you enjoy?
  • Make an effort to connect with others in the present. Spend time with people you care about. Talk to them about your positive memories.
  • Do things that make you happy. Listen to music, go for walks, watch your favorite movie.
  • Talk to a therapist. If you're feeling particularly down, talking to a therapist can help.
  • Be mindful. Be aware of how much time you spend dwelling on the past.
13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.