Wait, There Are Actual Benefits to Nostalgia? Experts Explain

There's a reason why we're drawn to our old favorites when we need a pick-me-up.

At the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, many Americans found themselves turning to old and familiar favorites to comfort themselves during such a confusing and unsettling time. Netflix reported that during the pandemic, hits like Friends and The Office saw their viewership numbers rise. And people started to collect old toys, like Pokémon cards and LEGOs like crazy.

But, it doesn’t always take a pandemic to make people seek out a hit of nostalgia to help remind them of the good old days. Plenty of people also find themselves in search of nostalgia when they’re looking to boost their moods. But why does nostalgia make us feel so good, and does engaging in nostalgic thoughts actually benefit us? We connect with a couple of mental health experts to answer all of our questions below.

What is nostalgia?

While Clay Routledge, PhD, existential psychologist, and professor of management at Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, says nostalgia can be described as a longing for something, it’s actually an emotion. “Nostalgia is what psychologists call an ‘ambivalent emotional experience’,” he tells HelloGiggles. “It is generally positive but often includes a tinge of sadness and loss.”

While we normally associate loss with grief, Routledge says that in this case, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Often, a big part of what makes life feel meaningful is recognizing its challenges,” he says. Which can often mean thinking about your “losses” as a way to appreciate everything you’ve gained.

How is nostalgia triggered?

A lot of things can prompt a wave of nostalgia—hearing a song that played at your prom, eating a pasta dish that reminds you of something your grandma used to make, or yes, even hearing Michael Scott from The Office say, “That’s what she said”—can all bring about feelings of nostalgia.

However, Routledge says nostalgia has two general types of triggers: external and internal.

External triggers

According to Routledge, nostalgia can be triggered by sensory inputs that remind us of cherished memories. “These include familiar smells, sounds, and images,” he says. This means, your sense of nostalgia will get triggered when you randomly see your favorite childhood movie at home or when you smell a family’s recipe that you used to love when you were younger.

Internal triggers

The second type of trigger is more indirect and psychological, according to Routledge. “Experiences that cause emotionally unpleasant states, such as loneliness, anxiety, a sense of meaninglessness, and even boredom motivate people to use nostalgia as a source of emotional comfort,” he says. This is where all of those rewatches Netflix reported come in.

“For example, when feeling lonely, individuals are inclined to reflect on meaningful past social experiences, which reminds them that their current state of social pain is not how things have always been.” Does that sound familiar?

what is nostalgia

The benefit of nostalgia:

According to Routledge, nostalgia can be a powerful tool when it comes to dealing with unpleasant emotions. “[Nostalgia] helps them put your current situation in perspective, gives you optimism that your loneliness is temporary, and motivates you to take action to make it temporary,” he says. In other words, nostalgia is often triggered by psychological pain because, according to Routledge, it serves to help reduce the pain and “orient people toward the goals and behaviors that help keep them mentally healthy.”

However, it’s important to mention that not all nostalgia is going to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. But Routledge says you shouldn’t necessarily let that make you feel bad, because negative feelings can help people appreciate the good in life and prioritize the experiences that make life meaningful.

“For example, losing a loved one is very sad and nostalgically thinking about that loved one will thus involve sadness,” he says. “But it also often makes people feel gratitude for the time they had with that person and, importantly, motivates them to focus on appreciating their current social relationships or building new ones.”

In its own way, nostalgia can actually help people learn from the past in order to have a better future.

Is nostalgia bad?

Routledge says people need psychological security, so when life feels uncertain or chaotic (like in the middle of a pandemic), the brain naturally looks for ways to restore a sense of order and predictability. “Older television programs, music, fashions, and other reminders of the past activate the nostalgic memories that provide that security,” he explains. However, he adds that people sometimes think this is an unhealthy behavior to engage in because “they imagine that this type of nostalgia keeps people stuck in the past and unable or unwilling to accept change.”

Most of the time, Routledge says this isn’t the case. “Gaining a sense of security from nostalgia makes them better prepared psychologically for change,” he says. It’s when people feel secure that they are most open to new ideas and experiences. “When people feel anxious, uncertain, or threatened, they are far less open to new ideas and experiences,” Routledge explains. So not only can nostalgia remind us of some of those feel-good moments from our past, but it can also make us more likely to be tolerant, open-minded, explorative, and creative.

How to use nostalgia to your advantage:

Though nostalgia obviously involves looking to the past, Routledge says it’s better and more accurate to think about nostalgia as a future-oriented experience. “By reminding people of meaningful life experiences and relationships that shaped who they are today, nostalgia serves as a guide for living a more goal-directed and purposeful life,” he says.

In short: go ahead and wear those dated clothes, pop in one of your mixed CD’s from high school, or even rewatch The Office for the eighth time—those feel-good emotions that get stirred up while you engage in reminiscing about the past are actually helping you to build a better future.