Nostalgia: what is it, why we feel it and how to overcome it

Who has never missed past experiences? Is there anyone who doesn’t remember past happy times? Everyone is aware of this feeling. Nostalgia can be negative, but it also has great benefits. In this article, we will tell you about its characteristics, causes, and history. In addition, we will also give you some tips to overcome excessive nostalgia.


What is Nostalgia?

When we read or hear the word nostalgia, we often think of concepts such as grief, sadness, or melancholy. We associate this term with a loss that causes us great discomfort. Nostalgia is a feeling that invades us when we think of the past. In fact, it comes from Greek, “nostos” that means return and “algos” that means pain. His etymology cannot be more explanatory. However, we often forget that nostalgia also has its upside.

Nostalgia tends to be frequent in unsure times or when change comes into our lives. Change is good for our personal growth, however, one of the aspects to consider is that it comes charged with nostalgia.

It can sometimes turn deceptive and adopt a sense of distortion or idealization of the past. Humans tend to remember only the best aspects of the past, forgetting the bad, the boring and the unnecessary aspects.

An article in Time magazine noted a 2015 study that “showed that nostalgic reminiscence can be a stabilizing force. It can strengthen our sense of personal continuity, reminding us that we possess a store of powerful memories that are deeply intertwined with our identity.” 

Types of Nostalgia

According to Boym, there are two types: restorative and reflective.

  • Restorative refers to the type where you try to reconstruct or relive the way things were in the past.
  • Reflective refers to longing and yearning feelings while accepting that the past is the past.

Why do we have Nostalgia?

According to a study by the University of Southampton, nostalgia increases optimism for the future. Their researchers conducted an experiment in which they asked subjects to write about an event in their lives that they associated with this feeling.

Another group had to write something about any experience. The result was that most of the positive words were from the first participants. In addition, in another investigation of this university, it was discovered that the songs that produce nostalgia generate optimism.

Nostalgia is a common response to change. Situations such as the loss of a friend, a sentimental rupture or moving cities alter our routine and force us to adapt to the new circumstances. In fact, there is no need for the changes to be recent, just remembering is enough.


Nostalgia: Characteristics

Nostalgia is ambiguous and occurs in a variety of situations and in different ways. Its defining features are:

  • It is a feeling: This characteristic is obvious, however, we often use the word “feeling” and distort its original meaning. A feeling is a subjective experience that accompanies emotions. In other words, it is a light and brief impression. However, nostalgia can be perpetuated.
  • It is common to everyone: Nostalgia affects us all regardless of our gender, age, socioeconomic level, culture, etc. Most of us have left behind periods of our lives we look back at with love and illusions.
  • Some people are more prone to nostalgia than others: Maybe we are those who like to look forward into the future, or we are those that keep our childhood toys and what things to remain the same. People are different in most areas and nostalgia will depend on our personality and our way of seeing life.
  • We idealize the object of our nostalgia: The expression “any time gone by was better” has to do with our tendency to stay only with the positive aspects of situations and experiences. Memory protects us by keeping good memories and discarding the negatives ones. This memory bias is highly adaptive even though, sometimes it makes us forget mistakes that we should not make again and it gives us opportunities to be happier most of the time.
  • It has different causes: Anything can trigger nostalgia, for example, the smell of your grandfather’s perfume, a cake from your childhood, a song related to an intimate moment. Our senses help us relive previous brain associations.
  • It helps us to grow personally: Memories guide us throughout life. Recalling happy times can make us happy even if they are in the past. It is wonderful to reflect on how fortunate we have been, to know what we want, and act accordingly. Nostalgia allows us to get to know ourselves more deeply, it raises our self-esteem, it protects us from loneliness and gives us the strength to face new challenges. The key is knowing how to use this feeling to progress. Appreciating the positive events that have shaped us is an essential part of our well-being.
  • It is a feeling reflected in numerous artistic manifestations: Nostalgia is tremendously inspiring for many people. It is a feeling capable of motivating us to create. In arts such as music, painting or literature, we find plenty of examples of broken relationships or old landscapes that are now iconic of nostalgia.

By the way, nostalgia is also used for selling. Feeling nostalgic makes us inclined to spend more money. Experts in marketing, media or product creation exploit the marketing of nostalgia to connect with us on an emotional level.

This explains the appearance of new editions of old classics or the comeback of past generations things. Nostalgia, in moderation and betting on elements that have been transcendental, is a very powerful weapon to stimulate the purchase of goods and services.

This feeling has often been associated with adverse situations. Nevertheless, it is possible to remember parts of our childhood with nostalgia despite the fact that we have formed a wonderful family, our work situation is favourable and we enjoy good health and a satisfactory economic income. Who doesn’t remember how easy it was before?

Each developmental stage to adulthood has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes we have to make choices and it is impossible to move forward without some positive elements of our lives being lost along the way. This can cause nostalgia and raise our spirits when we relive happy moments. However, we have the last word when it comes to deciding how we want to feel.

Nostalgia vs Regret

Regret is a negative emotional reaction to past actions. While you have nostalgia about the past, missing certain moments or situations, in the case of regret you have negative feelings towards actions you did or didn’t do in a particular past situation. Nostalgia, even though considered by some as something negative, it can also have positive aspects while regret is entirely negative. Regret is similar to disappointment, in specifics, regret refers to the actions of the past while disappointment refers to the negative outcome of these actions.

Nostalgia vs Homesickness

Homesickness refers to certain distressed caused by a separation from home, whether this is an actual separation or anticipated. Nostalgia can have a role in homesickness since it comes from the positive that was lived in the past home, however, it does not cause distress or impairment as homesickess by itself.

Nostalgia: History

Does nostalgia seem like a disease to you? You may have a very clear answer or you may have as many doubts as many specialists who have studied it throughout history. This term was first proposed by Johannes Hofer at the end of the 17th century. This medical student considered that it was a psychological illness exclusively Swiss.

In this video, you can see how nostalgia shifted from being considered an illness to a vital feeling of our well-being:

10 tips to overcome excessive nostalgia

If we feel nostalgic too often, it is likely to be a sign that something is not working right in our lives. Excessive nostalgia can be related to problems such as decreased performance, concentration problems, insomnia, depression or even affect our physical well-being. Below we will give you some recommendations to overcome extreme nostalgia and improve your quality of life.

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1. Be realistic

We all make comparisons between past and current stages. Take time to adapt to new phases of life. A change of apartments or group of friends can be beneficial even if at first it is difficult to adjust to the current reality.

2. Explore your feelings

Sometimes simple actions such as naming what is happening might help us. Self-evaluation from time to time guides us to change the things that don’t work in our lives and to look for alternatives. Intrapersonal intelligence helps us to dive into our cognitive processes in order to know ourselves better.

3. Communicate with positive people

Avoidance, isolation and lack of communication can cause nostalgia. Talking about why feel nostalgia can help us deal with it. Keeping in touch with friends and family can be the key to overcome our discomfort. Who doesn’t need support once in a while?

Talking about our feelings is important regardless if we live abroad or many changes are happening all at once. Expressing your concerns is positive as long as it doesn’t become a loop of bad thoughts or feelings. Develop your communication skills so you can feel better speaking about your own feelings.

4. Don’t focus on what causes pain

There are several ways of recreating past experiences that prevent us from moving forward. For example, storing old things from a past relationship.

Obviously, this isn’t bad. In fact, elements such as a photograph of our family can give us strength if we are far away. But if someone becomes obsessed with these belongings after a breakup, their recovery will be difficult.

When reviewing these memories it can cause excessive discomfort and nostalgia, so it is preferable to leave them aside for a while. We can even ask a friend to hide them or get rid of them if we think the time has come. The most important thing, though, is that we manage to master our self-control.

5. Remember that you can change the situation

The death of a close person is a tragic event with no solution. This does not mean that we should sink into misery. It is normal that we remember with warmth and nostalgia the moments we spent together.

It is healthy grieving and never forgetting our loved one.  We can keep talking about the deceased and keeping their things but that might become counterproductive.

If the situation that gives us nostalgia is something we can change like the loss of a job or friends group, then our first choice should be trying to fix it. There are endless problem-solving techniques available. It is never too late to increase our resilience. It’s a matter of time and willpower.

6.  Challenge yourself

Nostalgia shouldn’t force us to stay in bed. Nothing can take away the power to set new goals that allow us to increase our self-confidence and self-efficacy. For example, we can go to the gym and progressively increase the difficulty of our exercises or start writing a novel. Meeting our objectives will improve the perception we have of our current situation.

7. Maintain healthy habits

This advice is practically applicable to any situation. Our mental and physical health comes first. Taking care of ourselves will allow us to feel better and make a more positive assessment of our lives. Actions such as eating a balanced diet, developing our cognitive processes, resting, taking care of our self-esteem and exercising will allow us to have more energy and resources to overcome adversity.

8. Find Free time

Everyone carries their own nostalgia here are no definitive solutions for the nostalgic. Some people hide and mourn while others need to talk each time they are faced with a difficulty. The important thing is that we all dedicate some free time to what we like to disconnect from our problems and feel happier.

Some people hide and mourn while others need to talk each time they are faced with a difficulty. The important thing is that we all dedicate some free time to what we like to disconnect from our problems and feel happier.

It seems obvious, but focusing on thoughts of anger or sadness, makes us forget the importance of taking a break and clearing your mind (you can try relaxation techniques if you find it difficult).

9. Don’t try to avoid nostalgia completely

It is imperative that we accept our feelings. To hide that we feel nostalgia will make us feel unhappy. We can stop nostalgia when it reaches an excessive point, but we should not banish it.

10. Seek help if you can’t stop your nostalgia

When this feeling causes us discomfort, we feel overwhelmed, and it affects our daily life we should consider asking for help. Mental health professionals are prepared to take care of you in cases of excessive nostalgia.

Sometimes shame or the thought that no one will understand us stops us from asking for help. It is vital that we look for people with the necessary qualifications. Experienced experts such as psychologists or psychiatrists make it possible to find solutions to a wide range of psychological problems such as excessive nostalgia.

Thank you so much for reading this article. And you, do you feel homesick? If you have any doubts or wish to make a contribution, we invite you to comment below.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Ainhoa Arranz Aldana, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

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