I’ve read over this article in the New York Times a couple of times and there’s a lot of good in it, particularly for us historians.
Based on various studies, the author writes:
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.
My own experience of nostalgia – which from the 17th century was considered a form of mental illness – is somewhere in between. There’s a certain wistfulness for days past, which may indeed by remembered as better than they were, while also bringing with it a certain melancholy quite because those are things past. I still think fondly of the house I grew up in and the area nearby, even though I haven’t lived there in more than a decade and I don’t even know if those paths by the river are still accessible. I miss the place, because I don’t have access to that sort of landscape within walking distance any more.
It even affects my memories of the web. I used to frequent a nostalgia site called X-Entertainment, but haven’t been there in years. I went there just now as this article reminded me of it, only to find it’s not what it was and the author has moved on though he still posts a lot of the old stuff.
As a historian, I live somewhat in the past anyway. A statement like that is bound to provoke some mirth or even a comment that this makes me detached from reality, but that’s nonsense. It’s no bad thing, because I use it as a way of thinking about the present. Nostalgia is really just personal history, albeit coloured with wishful thinking and even a sense of loss. Right now I’m not only dwelling on things that have passed in my past, but wondering how people in the past dealt with such thoughts. It’s a peculiar sort of circle, but it’s good mental exercise. So take a stroll down your own memory lane and see what you find.