Why are we all so obsessed with nostalgia?

Prudence Wade speaks to a psychologist to find out more.

If you get together with a group of old friends, chances are you’ll spend a large chunk of time reminiscing about the past.

Shared memories from bygone times are comforting and can make you feel warm and fuzzy. Not only this, but reminiscing also has the power to bring you closer to the ones you love – particularly if you’ve been drifting apart.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of nostalgia is: “A sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.” The word itself evokes positive feelings of the past – you don’t really look back nostalgically at anything bad.

Bobby Moore with the world cup trophy

Bobby Moore holds up the 1966 FIFA World Cup trophy

Even when we’re on our own, we love anything nostalgic, whether it’s listening to the Backstreet Boys or re-watching old episodes of I Love Lucy. Our obsession is real, but why is that so? We asked Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist and author of The Shrinkology Solution, to explain a bit more about why we have this obsession.

It brings people together

The Beatles

Listening to bands from your youth can make you feel warm and fuzzy

Nostalgic presents are a big industry – just think of the tongue-in-cheek remakes of Enid Blyton’s books which have been updated with titles like ‘Five Go Gluten Free’ and ‘Five On Brexit Island’.

Arroll says: “I both personally and professionally see the benefits of nostalgia – for instance, buying retro gifts immediately connects both the giver and receiver not only with one another but also with a shared past.”

The same applies to going to remakes of films with your friends and discussing memories from the original.

“Nostalgia has the ability to bring people together who may have drifted apart – friends may have very different lives now, and so lack a common thread, but childhood memories bind us,” Arroll explains. “Studies have demonstrated this and found that when feelings of nostalgia are triggered, social bonds strengthen, positive self-regard increases, and there’s a boost in positive effect [good mood].”

It can improve your mood

Backstreet Boys

Backstreet’s back alright

Speaking more about the potential impact on your mental state, Arroll says: “Further research suggest that nostalgia may protect against future bouts of depression.” It’s true – looking back on the good times has the peculiar ability to make you feel good.

Perhaps it’s because 2018 felt like something of a firestorm of a year, but our passion for nostalgia seems to be stronger than ever. In a scholarly article by Clay Routledge, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides and Jacob Juhl, the authors describe how from the 17th century to the end of the 20th century, nostalgia was considered a neurological disorder – but now it’s been shown to have a positive impact on your mental health.

They write: “We argue that nostalgia, far from being an illness, is an important resource for maintaining and promoting psychological health.”

But there are some negatives

Sex and the City actors

Who among us hasn’t marathoned re-runs of our old favourite shows?

Nostalgia does, however, have some drawbacks.

Reliving the past can bring people together, but it also has the power to make you feel even more lonely than before. It’s altogether too easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses, and that can make you feel sad when comparing that time with today. Instead of using memories to work through new challenges, some people use it as a way of living in the past without moving forward.

Arroll also notes we need to beware of “longing for the way society used to be, known as collective nostalgia”. After all, society didn’t used to be as accepting or diverse as it is now, and looking back nostalgically can gloss over the more insidious aspects of the past.

But if it’s flicking through a 1998 copy of a glossy magazine, slurping on a cocktail you used to drink with your girlfriends in the Eighties or snuggling up on the sofa watching Breakfast At Tiffany’s, we’re confident a nostalgic cuddle with the past is most definitely a good thing.

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16th Jan 2019
Thanks for voting!
I like nostalgia for the times of my life now long gone. It wasn't a PC bed of roses then, no, there were some horrible times. None the less we lived in a fabulous reality.

One didn't swipe an Instagram page to signal interest in a girl. Didn't spend all night 'chatting' on Facebook or exchanging sleazy pictures although in those days I would have been thrilled with a saucy photo!

Our music was melodic, well for the most part. Protest songs from Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell. The lyrics were relevant to the world we were entering and the melodies so memorable.

So much of today's world is ephemera, here now gone tomorrow and of no value anyway. So much is electronic. I had a date with a blue eyed blonde (my weakness) and we kissed good night. Wonderful and so without complexity. But so valued.

Often my wife and I re-live the reality of our past because it was just that, real. It was our past that made us the people we are.
14th Jan 2019
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Speaking of and thinking of the days "when we" is like putting on a pair of old very comfortable slippers .I love to play the music of the 60's. Only this morning I was playing music of the Shirelles and other Motown artists, it floods my memories of bopping and jiving and the people I connected with..., happy memories.
I am not overly fond of the restrictive tight, uncomfortable slippers that give me blisters..for that is what today is for me...cold, uncomfortable restrictive and noisesome!

Studies have shown that dwelling on good memories does have a positive effect in many ways....I will continue wallowing in the past.
14th Jan 2019
Thanks for voting!
I do not find people I know indulging in nostalgia. We do not talk about the past except in fleeting references. Some of the men maintain their interest in the music of their youth but most of us have moved on. We all have very different backgrounds so there is no real basis for a nostalgic look at the past.

I think it is more a media thing as they try to fill up 24 hours news/media websites with cheap content. The TV stations indulge in this idea by constantly trying to recreate old programs but they are never successful as they do not represent people today.
11th Jan 2019
Thanks for voting!
Having read the article, surely we all embrace nostalgia because we recall those things of our youth easier than we do these days of media obsessed panic and alarm.I am Early 70s but I can remember all the words to the music of my youth and the special days which are now history JFK, Berlin Wall,Thre Day Week, However these days because of “the media “ obsession with 24 hr news everything just becomes a drone of noise that I myself don’t listen to. Every generation looks on nostalgia as a means of keeping sane in this ever divided world .Their is nothing wrong with listening to nostalgia or buying vinyl records again.Just enjoy life however you find it

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