I’ve been stalking nostalgia for a while now, back through the recesses of my mind, where it likes to lounge in a pleather recliner, reliving good times, meaningful events, old friends, and wiping away the occasional onslaught of tears, pretending they’re nothing more than ragweed allergies.
By nostalgia, I’m referring to a sentimental longing or yearning for a place or period from my past – one with happy memories or personal associations. It doesn’t need to be exclusively happy, but there has to be an element of happiness. And there’s usually an element of bitterness thrown in – an understanding that what I’m remembering is forever buried in the past, never to be resurrected.
And yet, despite that bitterness, nostalgia doesn’t necessarily induce sadness. Instead, it can serve as a kind of balm, a way to calm anxiety and stress, a way to connect to people now departed, some of whom may still be in this world, but many of whom are not.
Studies have shown that nostalgia can increase optimism, boost creativity and make us more social. And it can also help us find meaning in our lives. Music does wonders for booting up nostalgia, though what works best for me is often the sense of smell.
I might be walking along a trail in the park when I detect the smell of crushed crabapples, an odor from my youth that makes me remember riding my bike with friends on one of the last nice weekends of the fall. Or I’m walking past a hedge of lilacs and am instantly transported to my parents’ house, where dozens of massive lilacs fronted the road, a fragrant barrier between us and the traffic of the outside world.
I suppose if I had endured an unhappy childhood, such nostalgic moments would be a source of sorrow. And I know of at least one study which showed that people who spontaneously felt nostalgic experienced more negative emotions than those who actively sought out nostalgia. But even unhappy childhoods usually contain a few happy memories.
So I’ve been pursuing nostalgia, seeking balance, connectedness, continuity, meaning – something to indicate that there’s more to life than mere existence. Thinking about better days as a way of feeling better about today.
A good bout of nostalgia leaves me feeling more generous and at the same time less concerned with money and material success. I experience more gratitude for the life I’ve had, and less fear for the future. And as I age, as I approach the door that leads to the other side, I find my trips to nostalgia increasingly valuable.
I don’t want to live in the past. I don’t want to be a curmudgeon who looks at the present with suspicion. But I also don’t want to ignore the things that make me who I am. The good and the bad. The memorable and usually surprising moments that caught me off guard and therefore stayed with me, stored away in my mind’s attic, waiting for me to dust them off now and again for another quiet inward journey.
There’s nothing quite like the hunt for a good piece of nostalgia.