Do you often find yourself thinking back to the past and reminiscing about different experiences and memories? Or, maybe you find yourself focusing more on the future, imagining yourself accomplishing a goal or just thinking about what your life could look like.
“I think people kind of go back and forth from the past to the future, like in a time machine,” says existential psychologist Clay Routledge, vice president of research and director of the human flourishing lab at the Archbridge Institute. This “human ability to mentally time travel” intrigued Routledge and inspired numerous research studies. According to the science, mentally looking back in time — and to the future, where we can imagine our future selves — can be beneficial in many ways.
Nostalgia as a Coping Tool
For a while, it was hard to escape the belief that “there's something wrong with people being stuck in the past,” Routledge says. This notion stems from the origins of nostalgia itself. In the late 17th century, he continues, a Swiss physician started noticing homesick soldiers experiencing symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia and nausea. Because of this, the term nostalgia was born to represent what this physician deemed an actual neurological disease, Routledge says.
While people started to give up on this medical view of nostalgia, there was still a negative association with it for centuries afterwards, Routledge explains. Then, in the late 20th and early 21st century, marketing research demonstrated that people want to revisit certain memories, as evidenced by the considerable amount of money people spent on products that did just that. This “time travel” to the past wasn’t making them miserable; instead, it was doing the opposite, Routledge says.
Maybe there’s a smell that reminds you of your favorite season, and when you burn a candle with this scent, it immediately puts a smile on your face. Or there could be an old song that when you play it, you suddenly feel comforted. According to a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “nostalgia bolsters social bonds, increases positive self-regard and generates positive affect.”
Researchers like Routledge have discovered that nostalgia can even be used as a coping mechanism to help bolster a negative mood or keep loneliness at bay. In fact, scientists even found that there was a surge in the amount of older songs played on Spotify during the initial wave of pandemic lockdowns, according to a study published in the journal SSRN in 2020.
About a decade ago, further research revealed that nostalgia can serve as a motivational tool, too, Routledge says. He explains that when research participants have written about a sad memory or a hard time in their life, more often than not, that exercise helped them shift into a more hopeful state, where they were able to find meaning in their life.
“When we're anxious about the future, the uncertainty of the future — or the certainty — we can turn to the past as a way of being like, ‘Well, I've had a good life, I've had meaningful experiences’ and you know, that's kind of reassuring,” Routledge says.
Looking to the Future
Before researching nostalgia, Routledge actually looked to the future first, considering how humans often take on projects that might not give immediate results. For example, it can take many stressful years to obtain a college degree. Still, humans have the ability to "project" ourselves into the future, imagining ourselves accomplishing a goal to propel us through that adversity, Routledge says.
Similarly, Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, explores "how human behavior can be modified by bringing people closer to their future selves,” according to a press release. In a 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Hershfield and others tasked participants with writing a letter to themselves 20 years in the future. Despite the small sample size, those who wrote the letter actually exercised more afterwards. And when people actually saw their future self, using virtual reality technology, they were more likely to make decisions that would be valuable to their future self, such as saving for retirement.
Yet according to the same press release, brain imaging from another study shows that we tend to view our future self as a stranger, which can affect our current choices. Put simply, by doing things to connect more with our future self, like writing a letter, there’s a chance you might be more aware of the impact decisions made today can have on your life in the long run.
At the very least, writing letters to your future self might be helpful during stressful times. A 2021 study in the Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being journal found this exercise helped many with anxiety during the pandemic, as it allows us to expand our perspective and "see things in a new light during moments of despair."
Staying in the Present
While there are clearly benefits to this “ability to mentally time travel,” this doesn’t mean we should be so nostalgic or stuck on the future that it takes away from the present. As the good old saying goes: “Everything in moderation.” Routledge cites how exercise is important to our overall wellness, yet over-exercising can lead to injuries that limit your ability to do other things. It’s the same with nostalgia, he says.
Nonetheless, research shows if you’re feeling sad, anxious or lonely, throwing on that old song, looking at old photos or thinking back on former times — both good and bad — might help you feel better and find meaning. Even better, you can cook a meal that your grandma used to make or create a scrapbook or journal, which allows you to actively make sense of certain experiences and memories — and even share those memories with others.
Beyond that, taking even a few minutes to write a letter to your future self can also be useful. Maybe you’ll be more motivated to do something your future self will thank you for or that your younger self would be proud of. It may be that you’ll simply feel better in the present time. And there’s no time like the present, right?