By Vincent Lyn
Every time I’m asked to be interviewed about my film career and are shown photos or film clips it’s as if a movie starts replaying in my head — each scene from the past so clear. The first snow and frost laden window takes me back to my early childhood home in England, and there are so many songs that I associate with individual people and the times I’ve spent with them.
Reminiscing is not unique to me. You’d be lying if you say you haven’t found yourself recalling a fond memory — say, while flipping through photographs, or passing by a place with a distinct smell, or while listening to certain songs. While reminiscing is the behavior of reflecting on your past, nostalgia is an emotion that’s remembered, explained Clay Routledge, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.
“Nostalgia is the warm, fuzzy emotion that we feel when we think about fond memories from our past,” Erica Hepper, PhD, a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey in England. “It often feels bittersweet — mostly happy and comforting, but with a tinge of sadness that whatever we’re remembering is lost in some way.”
About 300 years ago, according to a report by ScienceABC, nostalgia was considered a mental disorder, or a symptom of depression, because it meant that a person was not capable of living fully in the present. After all, in Greek, the language the word has its roots in, nostos stands for homecoming and algo for ache.
“But those studying the phenomenon concluded that nostalgia did not come from sadness or longing but actually from a desire to reflect on happy memories of the past or an emotional era of life,” ScienceABC stated. By the end of the 20th century, nostalgia ceased to be considered a symptom of depression, but a means to resist it because it can be used as a coping strategy for dark days. Sometimes, we deliberately trigger feelings of nostalgia or try to romanticize the past by listening to familiar music, or old photos just to lift our spirits to feel good.
Also cashing in on this feel-good emotion are advertisers, especially heritage brands, who need to keep themselves alive in the current times. When brands get old, marketers worry. Their first instinct is to figure out how to make the brand younger. So, they resort to ‘nostalgia marketing.’ Brands periodically try to stave off the effects of aging through marketing and advertising tactics. Old brands also trigger nostalgia and stimulate the inner recesses of our memory. They make associations with places, people and moments that have a special place in our minds. They remain relevant.
And who doesn’t want a warm fuzzy feeling once in a while? According to Hepper and Routledge, people wax nostalgic at least once a week on average, spurred on by any external stimuli. It could be a familiar smell, music or old photograph. Smells trigger nostalgia faster than anything else, because the olfactory lobe, the part of the brain that processes odor, is directly connected to the limbic system, that is, the control center for emotions, according to Dr. Heidi Moawad, a neurologist.
Nostalgia even changes the physiology of the body, with the temperature of the body rising every time we feel a longing for the past. That should explain the feeling of warm fuzzies. A marketing survey also revealed that young adults, surprisingly, experience nostalgia more frequently than older adults, while Hepper and Routledge attribute to this the major life changes they are experiencing such as leaving home for college or getting married. The survey also states that nostalgia is also common in adults over 50 years of age. This might be because they often find themselves looking back and reflecting on their lives, say the duo. But it’s not a bad thing. The emotion can actually help reduce stress and increase one’s level of hope and optimism, Routledge says.
It may also help strengthen your sense of personal identity. “Remembering how you experienced unconditional love as a child, for example, can be reassuring during difficult times,” says Krystine Batcho, PhD, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York. Nostalgia can also make people feel less anxious. “The sense of continuity from connecting to the past can have a grounding effect, helping to ease stress,” she adds.
But the flip side, says Moawad, is that when it’s so easy to get nostalgic, it may raise the possibility of getting addicted to the pleasure it gives us. “Nostalgia can be used excessively as a crutch and the positive feelings of nostalgia may serve as a substitute for living in the present-day if current, real-life troubles take more effort than a person can tolerate.” We know, we know — it may be as difficult as it sounds, but staying on the right side of the past may probably be the best way to make nostalgia a feeling we enjoy.
Which brings me to listening to my father, now 85 years-old, who is always reminiscing. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really healthy, especially when the stories are about, “if only”, or ``if had done that”, and “what if”. But how many of you sit around during the holidays and listen to stories shared by your loved ones, such as grandparents or parents? Have you witnessed the emotions expressed by your loved ones? Listened to the details of the story? Even if you have heard the story before, it is important for you to be an attentive listener, because reminiscing serves a purpose in older adulthood.
Reminiscence involves sharing thoughts and feelings of one’s experiences to recall and reflect upon important events within one’s life. The ability to recall and reflect helps older adults remember who they used to be in order to help them define their identity in the current moment. The stories of the past provide a source of affirmation, hope, and belief that their legacy will be preserved.
In addition to improving self-identity, reminiscing may also protect against depression and loneliness. In a study of 47 nursing home residents, a reminiscence group demonstrated improvements in depression and loneliness upon completion of various exercises including sharing memories, life events, family history, and personal accomplishments (Franck, Molyneaux, & Parkinson, 2016). Overall, older adults may thrive from human interaction and meaningful conversations.
To initiate reminiscence in your loved ones, you may want to become creative in sharing memories. Creative ideas may include creating photo albums, scrapbooks, or memory boxes, discussing historical items such as toys or antiques, role playing short scenes from their past, listening to vocal or instrumental music, and recording oral histories or autobiographies. No matter which creative idea you choose, you are helping your loved ones solidify their current identity while feeling valued and appreciated.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts