It is fun to reminisce about times past, especially during the holidays. Everyone experiences nostalgia. As we age, this seems to happen more frequently. The good memories of the past can provide a longing for what once was, which can be melancholic for some people. For others, nostalgia brings an immediate feeling of warmth while thinking about the happy past.
Even if we take to heart what Marcel Proust said – that "Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were" – our memories serve an important purpose. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Southampton, feelings of nostalgia actually increase one's optimism about the future.
In the study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers asked participants to think of and write about a nostalgic moment in their lives. Researchers then coded the writings for their use of optimistic words and compared them to narratives from a control group that was asked to write about an everyday event. Not surprisingly, the nostalgic writings had significantly more optimistic words or expressions than the others.
Two more parts of the study used music – which is often associated with feelings of nostalgia – and rated participants' feelings of optimism after listening to or reading the lyrics to a nostalgic song versus a control song. Those who had a song that reminded them of the past reported feeling more optimistic in a follow-up questionnaire.
According to Dr. Tim Wildschut, a co-author of the study, this is good news:
"Nostalgia raises self-esteem which in turn heightens optimism," Wildschut said. "Our findings have shown that nostalgia does have the capacity to facilitate perceptions of a more positive future. Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future. Our findings do imply that nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity."
Optimism – looking toward the future with positive and hopeful feelings – has been established as the most important predictor of resilience. Resilience determines how quickly one bounces back from a difficult circumstance. Research has shown that more resilient people can more easily regulate their emotions than others. It's clear that optimism and resilience get us through life's adversities.
So in a roundabout way, reflecting on happy past times – being nostalgic – can lead to optimism, which is a paramount characteristic in how easily one can adapt and recover from a setback or challenging situation in life.