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Does Nostalgia Contribute to Healthy Aging?

As an aging adult, are you excited or apprehensive about another new year? Some people may focus on January as an end to negative events of the previous year and look forward with hope to a new beginning. Others may look back over any number of years and reminisce about days gone by, and perhaps feel a little uncertain about the future.  It seems natural to associate reminiscence with aging, since the longer one has lived, the more memories one has to review.

Reminiscence involves thinking about and sometimes sharing both positive and negative past experiences. It occurs naturally as people seek to make connections with each other, as well as develop and continually refine a sense of personal meaning and purpose in life. Reminiscence is also used as a therapeutic technique, especially with older adults.  Reminiscence may evoke feelings of nostalgia and these nostalgic feelings can influence our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world around us in very different ways.

I generally associate the word nostalgia with positive emotion, as an individual looks back on memories of a time when life felt comfortable and pleasant. Merriam-Webster lends a more negative connotation to this feeling with its definitions of nostalgia as “the state of being homesick” or “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

Douglas Fields, Ph.D., in a 2010 article titled Looking through Rose Colored Glasses – Does Nostalgia Make You Old?, identifies two opposing understandings of the term “old” and how an individual’s expressions of nostalgia contribute to others’ perceptions of this person.

The first (and I believe more popular) definition of the term “old” focuses on undesirable characteristics such as dependency on others, multiple health problems, resistance to change, and decreased activity. An individual who follows Merriam-Webster’s definitions of nostalgia and voices yearnings for the past and doubt about the future will likely be viewed as old in this negative sense of the word.  Bear in mind that the past which is so strongly missed may not have been as comfortable or pleasant as it is being recalled, since our brains sometimes create an idealistic image by focusing on certain characteristics of a memory while neglecting others.  Society’s interpretation of the time period in which certain life events occurred can also influence how our brain “remembers” our lives.  In this situation, nostalgia is a focus on oneself and the losses which have been experienced.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the term “old” is associated with characteristics such as wisdom and experience. In this circumstance, an older individual who expresses nostalgia uses it to relate the past with the present and to provide useful information for making decisions and influencing future actions. The individual is focusing outside of himself/ herself and offering others a chance to learn from his/her life experience. Contrary to the notion that people who are nostalgic are stuck in the past, Juliana Breines, Ph.D., suggests in a 2016 article that used appropriately, nostalgia can improve our lives through an appreciation of life experience, the elevation of our mood, development of coping strategies, strengthening of social connections, identification of our values, and even increased physical comfort (she mentions a study in which nostalgia improved cold tolerance). Emphasizing this definition of age and the associated advantages of nostalgia can help destigmatize our society’s perception of “growing old.”

Thus, an individual’s frame of reference will determine whether nostalgia might hold one back from embracing the present and future, or provide a foundation for an expansion of knowledge and opportunity. Are you using nostalgia to your advantage?

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN