The smell of gingerbread cookies, the sight of an overcast sky and falling leaves in autumn or the initial beat of of “Oops! I Did It Again” might send you back in time to when you were young, naive and free of student debt. These harmless triggers bring on a wave of warm nostalgia, and may even leave you in a better mood than you were before the flood of emotion. That being said, nostalgia in excess can be detrimental to our health, especially if we compare how the nostalgia makes us feel about the way things used to be to how we feel about the way things are now.
What Exactly Does “Nostalgia” Mean, and Why Is It Bad?
Originally defined by ancient Greek philosophers as “psychological suffering caused by unrelenting yearning to return to one’s homeland” and thought of as a mental disorder until the mid-20th century, nostalgia is not always as innocuous as we would like to think. In fact, it is still considered by the American Psychological Association to be a subset of depression. Its current cultural definition, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” While that is not quite as ominous-sounding as psychological suffering, it still calls for pause when assessing the value of an emotion prevalent enough that people have reported feeling it at least once a week.
When you experience nostalgia, you are fondly remembering and longing for a time that never actually existed.
This definition also fails to take into account a crucial component of nostalgia: when you experience it, you are fondly remembering and longing for a time that never actually existed. Those memories, while not entirely fabricated, have been selectively chosen and further tinged and modified by your own brain to seem far better than they truly were. Anyone may find herself yearning for the times her grandparents used to take her out to go sledding, drink hot chocolate and build snowmen, while at the same time forgetting that the reason this happened so frequently was so that they could remove her from the presence of an abusive alcoholic parent. In fact, according to the Association for Consumer Research (ACR), nostalgia even contributes to the tendency of those with abusive or alcoholic parents to marry abusive or alcoholic spouses by causing an “urge to recreate the past.”
I’m not trying to say that this entirely invalidates the undoubtedly happy sledding memory; the problem comes when we associate that happy feeling with our entire childhoods, and as a consequence find ourselves wishing that nothing had changed or that we could go back. Longing for “the good old days” is harmful because the present could never possibly live up to such a falsely idealized vision of the past from which all negative emotions have been filtered out, and the unfair comparison causes a state of denial, filled with unhappiness and despair, that is rooted in self-deception.
Idealizing the past will only make the present seem worse than it actually is — and why, once aware of that, would we continue to do that to ourselves? Can’t we just be happy with things the way they are, or work to change them if we are not, even if that is easier said than done? In reality, wistfully remembering or imagining a time when things were “better” does much more harm than good.
Nostalgia’s Harmful (And Less So) Effects
Nostalgia’s subsequent false recollections can have especially harmful repercussions on those who already suffer from excessive worrying or anxiety. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Bas Verplanken, a professor of social psychology at the University of Bath, discovered that, after being exposed to nostalgic stimuli, participants who exhibited a “strong worry habit” showed “enhanced symptoms of anxiety and depression” compared to those with the same predisposition in the control group. In other words, the nostalgic triggers caused those who worry “habitually” to become more depressed and anxious than they would have been otherwise. As Dante so poignantly wrote, “There is no greater sorrow/Than to recall a happy time/When miserable.”
That isn't to say nostalgia is ubiquitously detrimental to our well-being. Verplanken cited several studies that have unearthed positive mental effects resulting from nostalgia, such as the easing of existential distress and increasing feelings of “social connectedness.” However, even those who identified these positive effects recognize that nostalgia is an idealized recollection and has a melancholic effect. Nostalgic emotions — or any other emotions, for that matter — should not be suppressed or ignored. They should be monitored and treated with caution rather than glorified, just like the memories of which they are composed.
The only reason nostalgia is harmful is because of the human tendency to alter memories of times past.
This brings us to the heart of the matter: the only reason nostalgia is harmful is because of the human tendency to alter memories of times past, similar to how we tend to be impatient for a time in the future when everything is sure to be better than it is now. There is nothing wrong with fond memories, even if their golden sheen is partly imagined, as long as we realize that juxtaposing memories and dreams of the future with present situations may be unnecessarily making our lives more difficult. The best way to avoid the depression that sometimes accompanies nostalgia is to stay mindful of what is going on around you here and now, and not discount it.
A balance of all emotions — including sadness, anger, joy, frustration, compassion, excitement and nostalgia — is necessary and healthy. We just have to be careful not to overindulge in any one emotion. With feelings of nostalgia, just like those of any other emotion, we have to be careful how we let them affect us; while there is a beauty in feeling deeply, there is also a danger. Just as we would do our best to stop from hurting our loved ones, either physically or emotionally, during a fit of rage, we must do our best to avoid hurting ourselves through deceptively gilded versions of past memories.