While shopping at the farmers market, you pick up a sweet berry, and suddenly, you’re a little girl again, helping your grandmother make her famous blackberry pie.
Though a tear comes to your eye because you miss her, a smile also crosses your lips at the precious memory. This instant and often bittersweet time machine is nostalgia — and it’s a powerful tool proven to allay fear, decrease loneliness, and boost joy.
“Nostalgia is a cognitive emotion, a blend of thinking and feeling, that makes it unique,” says psychologist Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., explaining that we can even feel nostalgic for surprisingly difficult memories, like when we faced a setback but learned an important lesson. “Because it activates joy and sadness at the same time, it has a paradoxical power that keeps us grounded yet hopeful.”
In fact, nostalgia for the past is surprisingly “future-orienting,” says psychologist Andrew Abeyta, Ph.D. “It inspires optimism, helping us connect with others. And though it’s a mixed emotion, its effect on our positive feelings, like gratitude, is much longer-lasting.”
Memory lane, in other words, is a two-way street, leading to the most meaningful parts of your past as well as the most promising aspects of tomorrow. Just read on for easy ways to tap this profound experience and unleash more joy in your life.
Afraid of change? Remember silver linings.
Looming layoffs at work are making you wonder who you would even be without the job you’ve held for years. “Transitions pose the question: ‘Am I the same person I was before this?’” says Batcho. Such a disorienting blow to our identity makes it hard to envision ourselves overcoming setbacks.
When facing a challenge, let your story boost your resilience. “Studies show that people who experience more nostalgia engage in more meaningful ‘identity exploration,’ which means reevaluating who you are,” she says. That’s vital because the stronger your sense of self, the better you can weather transitions. “Some of our best memories are actually times of adversity because they show what we’re capable of.” A powerful way to savor “silver linings nostalgia” is by sharing stories of past hurdles. For example, tell your grandkids how you once started over after a major financial challenge. “Looking back on what you’ve overcome teaches you that, though times change, you’re still the same strong, capable person.”
Feeling lonely? Share happy memories.
Ever since your adult children moved away, you’ve felt not only isolated but full of dread. “Loneliness makes us focus on what we’re afraid to lose,” says Abeyta. “Nostalgia, however, puts us in a proactive mindset, motivating us to reach out.”
To connect with others, simply swap memories. “Nostalgia is a highly social emotion proven to help counteract loneliness,” reveals Batcho. “Just call a friend and ask, ‘Do you remember that summer we did X or Y?’ Bringing yourself back to important parts of your past tells your brain that things were good and can be again.” Also smart: Flex your creativity by, say, compiling a cookbook of heirloom recipes or researching your family tree. When we use our forward-thinking imagination to create a collective “memory bank,” loneliness is replaced by a deeper sense of connection. “This way, you’ll have your loved ones in your psyche, if not in your living room.”
Stuck in a rut? Revisit mementos.
After another week of the same old, same old, you feel, well, blah, and in a kind of listless emotional limbo. “Boredom can lead to a lack of meaning,” says Abeyta. Thankfully, nostalgia is shown to help us rediscover purpose and value in our lives.
Give your zest for life a jolt with “sensory sentiments.” Just go through old mementos and ask yourself if they stir meaningful memories, encourages Batcho. Whether it’s a colorful birthday card, a scented candle your sister gifted you, or a smooth river rock you kept to mark a family trip, taking these artifacts in with your senses helps you appreciate the value you’ve played in others’ lives, restoring a sense of meaning. Another way to do just that is through vicarious nostalgia. “Listening to a song we relate to, for example, is a powerful way to help us cope with difficult emotions,” says Batcho. “Nostalgia reminds us that although we can’t control the force of time, we can control how we experience it by revisiting the memories that make us who we are.”
Filled with regret? Focus on the future.
You made a mistake and can’t help brooding on it. “Regret and depression can become self-perpetuating ,” says Batcho. “It’s hard to get out of these emotional spirals, but evidence suggests that people who are more nostalgic also tend to be more hopeful.”
Discover freedom from self-blame by focusing on future memories right now. In other words, look to anticipatory nostalgia. “This lets you savor the things you still have,” explains Batcho. In fact, simply telling yourself that a specific experience, such as getting ice cream with your grandkids or playing with your dog on the beach, will one day feel nostalgic helps you lock in happy memories in the moment, feel more joy, and melt regrets over the past. Indeed, nostalgia is a powerful form of mindfulness, grounding you in the comfort of the present moment. “It’s linked to a deeper sense of spirituality because it lets us say to ourselves, ‘I’m more than this setback, there is meaning to my life beyond this,’” says Batcho, revealing that in the end, the most powerful form of memory may just be “recollecting” who you are and all of the gifts, grace, and joy you have to offer the world.