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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012

How waxing nostalgic can boost mental health


By EDWARD HOFFMAN
Special to The Japan Times

NEW YORK — Do you indulge in sentimental memories? Do you enjoy perusing your photo collections? Do you like listening to "oldies" songs on the radio, YouTube, or other popular venues?

If so, don't feel embarrassed — for social scientists now say that nostalgia is not only harmless, but actually beneficial for our well-being. Indeed, the more emotionally healthy we are, the likelier to feel sentimental easily.

It certainly wasn't always viewed this way. The word nostalgia comes from ancient Greek, combining "nostos" (to return home or to one's native land) and "algos" (referring to pain, suffering, or grief). The word was created back in 1688 by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer, who discussed it in his medical treatise.

Hofer used nostalgia to describe the severe emotional distress of Swiss soldiers stationed far from home — whose symptoms included sadness, diminished senses, and physical weakness.

For several centuries afterward, nostalgia had a medical — and basically abnormal — connotation linked to homesickness. For a while, some medical researchers even suggested that it was peculiar to Swiss people.

Then, in the 1950s, experts began changing their view. They no longer saw nostalgia as a type of homesickness, but instead as a pleasant self-indulgence about the past.

Undoubtedly, this shift related to the enormous impact of the television, whose popular shows like "Death Valley Days," "Gunsmoke" and "Wagon Train" celebrated the American Old West and Frontier.

Other shows like "Lassie" cast a warm glow on traditional American farm life. It's no surprise that Baby Boomers — raised on such entertaining TV fare — were the first generation to grow up with nostalgia as a positive feature.

By 1979, sociologist Fred Davis at the University of California, San Diego, reported in his book "Yearning for Yesterday" that most college students viewed nostalgia favorably, and he asserted that it allows people "to maintain their identity in the face of major transitions [like] childhood to pubescence, adolescence to adulthood, single to married life, and spouse to parent."

Since then, psychological research has shed increasingly light on the role of nostalgia in our lives.

What do we know?

First, that most people become nostalgic mainly about their teenage and young adult years, rather than their childhood. Perhaps it's because we fondly recall our first, awakening sense of freedom and life's great possibilities.

We also know that nostalgic moods are often triggered by our senses — especially relating to songs and odors.

Intriguingly, American regional differences seems to exist: For East Coast people, the fragrance of flowers is most likely to produce a happy childhood memory, whereas Southerners react more to fresh country air.

For Midwesterners, it's the smell of farm animals, and for West Coasters, it's the odor of meat cooking or barbecuing.

Are women more likely to get nostalgic than men? Scientific research says no, but they typically get nostalgic over different things.

As you might guess, vintage cars and reminiscing about major-league sports put men into nostalgic moods, whereas women react more to mementos associated with particular events involving family or friends.

For nearly everyone, the holidays of Christmas and the Fourth of July trigger happy memories of the past — and to a lesser extent, so do Thanksgiving, Easter and New Year's Day.

We all know some people who get nostalgic a lot, and research indicates that they're more emotional and have stronger memories than the rest of us. It's exciting to report that nostalgia has qualities that benefit our mental health.

Recently, an international team of researchers led by Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-sen University in China found that nostalgia enabled people to feel more connected with family and friends, and thereby reduced feelings of loneliness. His series of studies involved migrant children and teenagers, college students, and older adults — all living in China.

Published in Psychological Science in 2008, these findings affirmed the results of an earlier study conduced in England by Tim Wildschut at the University of Southampton. Both researchers contend that people with high resilience — that is, the ability to bounce back quickly from stress — are skillful in using nostalgia to put themselves in a happy mood.

Over the past six years, I've led an international team of psychologists studying moments of great happiness (that is, what psychologist Abraham Maslow called "peak-experiences") in countries as diverse as Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Norway and the United States.

Our research confirms that joyful memories from our childhood years amplify our sense that we are loved by others, even though we cannot physically relive those bygone days.

Because of our strong, human need to feel a sense of love and belongingness, it's no surprise that in every country we've surveyed, people report peak-experiences of "interpersonal joy" most frequently.

Of course, it probably isn't healthy to over-indulge nostalgically. Focusing too much on past memories can prevent us from living fully in the present, and from making new friends and strengthening current relationships.

Reminiscing excessively about "the good old days" can even be hurtful to those who weren't there — and who may therefore feel slighted or rejected.

So what's the solution?

To appreciate the present — but also let yourself wander occasionally down Memory Lane and its byways of your life. It's not only OK to do so, but growing scientific evidence is that your personal well-being will benefit.

In short, the day may not be far off when your doctor will advise, "Have two nostalgic memories and call me in the morning."

Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York and a frequent lecturer in Japan. Email: elhoffma@yu.edu


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