When people walk into Keri Piehl’s retro toy store in Albuquerque, N.M., their eyes light up. Wooden spinning tops, Yo-Yos, Trolls, rainbow lava lamps, scratch-and-sniff stickers—it’s like time travel, unlocked.
Some visitors make a beeline for the games and puzzles, eager to relive their glory days. “I sell a ton of jacks to grandparents,” Piehl says. “I always joke that I should have an over-50 league, because every single grandma tells me they were the best at jacks.” Others simply want to settle a score. Grandfathers, in particular, enjoy bringing up old marble-related injustices—like the time so-and-so cheated to win the game. “They’re still salty,” she laughs.
Indulging in this sort of nostalgia offers a host of wellbeing benefits, experts say. But that hasn’t always been clear. The concept has a complicated past: “Nostalgia” was coined in the 1600s by a Swiss medical student to describe homesickness among soldiers serving in European wars—essentially, the pain of longing to return to one’s native land. (“Nostos” translates to “return,” and “algos” means “pain.”) Because these feelings triggered anxiety and even physical ailments, “it was originally thought of as a brain disease,” says Clay Routledge, a psychologist who’s vice president of research and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at Archbridge Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit research organization. “There were weird ideas like, maybe it’s demonic forces, or maybe it’s the clanging of cowbells causing damage to their inner ear.”
For centuries, scholars and medical professionals continued to assume nostalgia was detrimental. But that understanding has evolved, and more recent research, including studies led by Routledge, suggests that actually, yearning for the past has an upside: It helps us feel more connected to other people—while lowering prejudice toward “out-groups” (people who are, say, a different ethnicity or age) and increasing our ability to offer emotional support. Nostalgia can also help us find meaning in life, build self-esteem, and allow us to focus more on being true to ourselves, rather than getting caught up in extrinsic standards; plus, it can make us happier. Interestingly, it’s as much about building a better future as it is the past, experts say.
“Originally, I said, ‘OK. The best way to think about nostalgia is it’s this psychological defense mechanism—when life is uncertain and unstable, we look to the certainty and comfort of the past, and that makes us feel better,’” notes Routledge, whose book, Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life, will be published in December. “And that’s definitely true.” But he’s also discovered something surprising: When people share nostalgic memories, many are future-oriented. For example, someone might say: “When I was a kid, I spent summers with my grandmother; she’s no longer with us, and that makes me sad. But I cherish that time in my life, and it inspires me to create memories with my own family.” “It’s looking backwards,” Routledge says, “but it’s because you want ideas for how to move forward.”
Here, Routledge and other experts share their favorite ways to tap into nostalgia’s benefits.
1. Watch old movies.
Ask John Medina why he’s interested in nostalgia, and he’ll joke that maybe it’s because he’s 67. After age 30 or so, he says with a laugh, everyone starts looking backwards. More seriously, he’s a developmental molecular biologist who’s long been fascinated by nostalgia—and the ways it can buffer brain health by triggering the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine.
In order to reap nostalgia’s benefits, Medina aims to indulge in it for an hour a day, often watching old Disney movies that he and his mom enjoyed together when he was growing up: Fantasia, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty. “That’s my happy place,” he says. Follow Medina’s lead and seek out the movies that remind you of a joyful time in your life. Even better, watch them or discuss them with someone else, he recommends.
2. Dine like you did as a kid.
In need of dinner plans? Load up your plate with a cafeteria-style sloppy joe and some Pop Rocks and Pixy Sticks, and pair it with a nice glass of purple Kool-Aid. If anyone asks, call it the Nostalgia Special. “Indulge in your favorite foods from when you were a kid,” Medina echoes, with a permission-granting aside: “Even if they weren’t all that healthy for you.”
Some research shines light on the idea of food nostalgia: One study, for example, found that people seek out comfort food that reminds them of their past when they experience feelings of isolation. Scents, in particular—maybe a roast dinner, or cookies baking in the oven—can evoke nostalgia, while also increasing self-esteem, optimism, and feelings of meaning in life. So eat up—and if you have trouble recreating old staples, enlist the help of a cookbook like Betty Crocker Lost Recipes: Beloved Vintage Recipes for Today’s Kitchen.
3. Create some playlists.
Research suggests that people prefer music that was popular when they were in their teens and 20s to songs from before or after that time in their lives. Spend part of your day listening to whatever gets you grooving—or better yet, Routledge notes, make a playlist of your favorites. That’s an example of “something that requires a little more active creativity,” he says. “You’re not just listening to nostalgic music—you’re intentionally engaging with it.”
4. Visit your local library.
When Piehl and her husband started dating, they hit the children’s section at the local library and shared their long-ago favorites with each other. (She favored James Mashall’s books, including the George and Martha series. He preferred books by Chris Van Alsburg, especially The Garden of Abdul Gaz.) “It was a really cool, fun way to learn about the other person,” she recalls. These days, her shop sells an array of nostalgia-inducing titles, including Arnold Lobel’s Days With Frog and Toad, Mad Libs, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. For an efficient shot of nostalgia, follow Piehl’s lead and go back to the picture-book basics.
5. Start a collection.
Medina often advises people to start collecting things—the earlier in life, the better. “That way, when it comes time for you to retire, you’ll have a bunch of objects you can fill a room with, and then just go and sit in as if it were a hot tub,” he says. “A hot tub for the mind.”
Objects can uniquely help conjure the past. Plus, collecting is active and social: You might find yourself combing through antique shops or flea markets, and interacting with those you encounter along the way. Brainstorm what you’re interested in—vintage Coke bottles; antique dishes; Barbies; train sets—and have fun embarking on your scavenger hunt.
6. Write your memories down—and share them with friends.
Researchers have found that when people are asked to write about a sentimental event from their past, they feel loved and supported—which helps protect against loneliness. So grab a journal (or maybe a Lisa Frank notebook for good measure), and make it a point to write regularly.
While journaling can be just for you, there’s value in sharing what you write with others, Routledge notes. “You’re the protagonist because they’re your memories, but the story is about people you care about,” he says. “When we can share them with the people we created them with, it’s a way to keep that bond alive and strengthen it.” Even if that’s not possible, he notes, nostalgia is a form of self-disclosure, so sharing your memories with new friends who didn’t experience them can help build those relationships. In other words? There’s nothing wrong, he says, with passing hours yacking about the good old days.
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Contributor: Angela Haupt