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Why Do We Feel Nostalgia?

The pandemic has made many of us nostalgic for the past. Mental health experts say it can be a force for good or bad in the human psyche.

By Carina Woudenberg
Nov 10, 2020 7:31 PMNov 10, 2020 7:32 PM
(Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock)


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Living through eight months of a pandemic is liable to make one yearn for the days of live music, large family gatherings and even carefree visits to the grocery store. We largely took these activities for granted before the virus took hold of our lives, now leaving us with a longing for the past.

Companies that digitize family photos and video collections are reporting a major boost in sales in recent months. And nostalgia could be to blame.

“Because people are unable to travel and create new experiences, nostalgia is trending,” says Mitch Goldstone, chief executive officer at ScanMyPhotos.com. Since shelter-in-place orders began in March in the U.S., his company has seen a nearly 625 percent increase in demand for their services.

Anything from childhood friends to discontinued candy bars can spark feelings of nostalgia. It all begs the question of how this serves our psyche. Mental health experts say it can be a double-edged sword.

“Nostalgia keeps society from going off the rails by making us remember the best parts of the past,” psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman says. “For example, it’s important for American society to feel nostalgic for the days that Norman Rockwell captured in his paintings.”

Tanya J. Peterson, a counselor who also writes about mental health, says nostalgia can point people toward meaning, but also inhibit us. “Looking back fondly can help you make meaning in the present by helping you remember and repeat happy events and attitudes,” Peterson says. “When nostalgia turns into longing for the past and unhappiness with the present, it begins to hold us back.” She adds that because our memories are not always accurate, we sometimes cling to a former reality that never truly existed.

Abigail Nathanson, a social worker who specializes in care for patients facing serious illness of the end of life, likens nostalgia to the concept of “continuing bonds.” This idea deals with the effect people and things of the past carry into our present lives.

“In some ways, this is really helpful,” Nathanson says. “[Especially] when we establish charitable foundations in people's honor, name children after their ancestors and live according to the values of people who are important to us.”

However, Nathanson warns, spending too much time on the past can make us blind to opportunities in the future. “Are we living as if the past is still happening now,” she asks, “and denying ourselves the chance for meaningful connections in the present?”

Learn more about human memory in the collection below:

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