Monday, July 08, 2013

Rooms of Nostalgia

From a report in the New York Times on psychological research into the functions of nostalgia:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future."

The research has been conducted over a number of years by Constantine Sedikides.   “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times..."  

Nostalgia has long been identified as an illness or more recently as a symptom of psychological problems, mostly depression.  But this research sees its compensatory and humanizing functions.

“The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America,” Dr. Wildschut says. The topics are universal — reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.

Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing” — researchers distinguish it from reminiscing — helps them feel better. 

A couple of fascinating findings, though not counterintuitive ones: Nostalgia is often sparked by music--the old songs bring it back.  And people "nostalgize" (yes, they wouldn't get any grants if they didn't make up an important sounding word) more on cold days or in cold rooms, and the memories give them a physical feeling of warmth.  They don't feel the cold so much.

The usefulness of nostalgia seems to vary with age, according to Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England. She and her colleagues have found that nostalgia levels tend to be high among young adults, then dip in middle age and rise again during old age.

“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper says. “The young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.” 

There are dangers, which have prompted the dour diagnosis of indulging in nostalgia:

Of course, memories can also be depressing. Some researchers in the 1970s and ’80s suggested that nostalgia could worsen a problem that psychologists call self-discontinuity, which is nicely defined in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” by Stephen Stills: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.” This sense of loss and dislocation has repeatedly been linked to both physical and mental ills.

But the feeling of discontinuity doesn’t seem to be a typical result of nostalgia, according to recent studies. In fact, people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity if they nostalgize more frequently...

This research stumbles for me where it usually does: in the dubious details of the actual studies.  I'm not sure how they earn this unsurprising conclusion, but here it is:

Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Dr. Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.” 

"Nostalgia" means the yearning for a lost home.  What that means, and why the yearning, changes according to age and circumstances.  Sedikides suggests that taking the "those were the days" approach is not helpful to, for example, an old person nearing the end.  But it can be helpful in the final quest for a sense of meaning: "what has my life meant?"

But of course such research has to lead to a self-help plan.

Dr. Sedikides, now 54, still enjoys nostalgizing about Chapel Hill, although his range has expanded greatly over the past decade. He says that the years of research have inspired strategies for increasing nostalgia in his own life. One is to create more moments that will be memorable.

“I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. “We call this anticipatory nostalgia and have even started a line of relevant research.” 

He suggests "nostalgizing" two or three times a week.  So schedule that, won't you, along with your pilates, meditation and revising your life plan?  

Once again, the startling findings of psychology are anticipated by many centuries of literature, drama and music. In art, Magritte referred to the "nostalgia for the infinite" (title of the accompanying 1912 painting) that is part of the yearning expressed in a lot of visual art but also in the fascination with vastness and mysteries that leads people into fields like astrophysics and archeology.

  People in general already understood that they are nurtured by memories, find dimension to their lives in the past and in learning about ancestors, and that while even the best personal memories are bittersweet, they are important to who we are.  The dreamy, airy, watery imagery of nostalgia is part of what grounds us. 

We may be haunted by lost homes, but those emotions can be embraced as important parts of our selves. Older people tend to live in the past more, and that past continually expands--more information, texture, clearer memories, deepening memories and more images that feed one another--until the past assumes a bigger presence in the present.  It becomes much more of who we are.  Just as we keep and display photos etc. from our past or of our ancestors, the ever-changing and deepening feelings we get as we return to those   mysterious scenes become rooms in the homes we make each day of our present.

So it's not nostalgia exactly.  Because it's being welcomed back into our present lives, part of our totality again.  It's helping to furnish where we live now.