Nostalgia Does the Brain Good

Being introspective, being prospective, even being retrospective is productive and constructive for many. And according to an article in New York Times, nostalgia — which is retrospective — is shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety.

Nostalgia renders us to be more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples report feeling closer and feeling happier when sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

However, it has long been considered a disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — nostos in Greek, and the accompanying pain, algos. In the 19th and 20th centuries, nostalgia was variously classified as an “immigrant psychosis,” a form of “melancholia” and a “mentally repressive compulsive disorder”.

Yet nostalgia makes us feel that our life has roots and continuity. Psychodynamic practice highlights the significance of “object constancy”. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our relationships; it provides a texture to our life and often gives us strength as we advance into our future. Some research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.

Nostalgia can have a painful side — it is a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is making life more meaningful and death less frightening. When people recall and speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

And nostalgia is different to homesickness, which many clinicians consider a form of separation distress. Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England, and her colleagues, demonstrate that nostalgia levels tend to be high among young adults, then dip in middle age and rise again during old age. So it reveals a time-related pattern. It is suggested that “nostalgizing” two or maybe three times a week is an optimal dosing of these experiences.

John Tierney, (8 July 2013). What is nostalgia good for? Quite a bit, research shows. New York Times.

Image via Africa Studio / Shutterstock.

  • ayesha

    thats interesting..i myself have felt many a time that when i am indulged in old memories, it brightens me inside out and my anxiety is relieved..

  • I think nostalgia is the reason why we created photography and art in the first place. I would even argue that we created these to stimulate the feeling of nostalgia and perhaps that is our human mechanism to control our brain to limit anxiety, boredom, etc

  • Hi Richard

    I really enjoyed your article as it makes me feel more positive about indulging in a little nostalgia myself. Nostalgia seems to be a sentiment whose poignancy directly correlates to the circumstances of the present. Your article seems to high light a number of positive emotions and levels of confidence which can be attributed to nostalgia. These emotions would seem to have the potential for forming the basis for positive therapies and temporary relief from emotional distress.

    I am particularly interested in the emotional benefits of nostalgia in assisting people who are experiencing emotional overload or extended periods of stress. I believe that the incorporation of specifically induced nostalgic experiences could be a way of coping with incidents or situations such as stressful workplaces or students studying for exams. The intention would be that in helping individuals to develop coping mechanisms for difficult circumstances, the long term negative effects of emotional breakdown or stress overload could be avoided. Surely any individual therapy which helps us to ‘feel good about ourselves and our relationships’ would be an empowering tool for building confidence and positive mental health (Kensinger, 2013).

    Kensinger, R. (2013). Nostalgia Does the Brain Good. Brain Blogger: Health & Healthcare. Retrieved from:

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Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University.
He is also a lover of “football”, known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth “football”, 26 as a referee.

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