Nostalgia is an emotional tool that carries powerful healing properties, according to an eye-opening new study on the topic.
There’s an odd kind of comfort that comes from popping on that Alanis Morissette track you were obsessed with aged 15, or rifling through a stack of old school photos you’d long since forgotten about.
Nostalgia, it seems, is an emotion that delivers deep-rooted comfort – a subtle force that’s particularly beneficial during times of uncertainty.
The survey of 2,000 Brits found that nostalgia is being used to generate feelings of happiness (44%), comfort (41%), gratitude (32%) and relaxation (31%) – all calming states that promote wellbeing and positive mental health.
The research was an extension of a separate study that the agency carried out in partnership with YouGov into the power of nostalgia last year. A comparison between the two periods show that the parameters of where we find nostalgic cues have widened under lockdown; possibly because we have a more urgent need for comfort.
“When we carried out our research last year, we found that music was a key nostalgia trigger for Brits, with one in five recalling an artist or band when looking back at a decade,” says Helen Rose, head of insight and analytics at the7Stars.
“In this wave of research, we’re seeing a much wider variety of cues making Britain nostalgic, and it includes a mixture of both practical and passive activities.”
In the latest research, baking topped the list of nostalgic triggers for people living under lockdown, with 43% saying it made them feel fondly of the past. Listening to old music (41%) came next on the list, followed by watching old TV shows (37%) or looking at old photos (33%).
So why is it that people are turning to nostalgia as a solace right now, and how exactly does it provide comfort?
Channelling nostalgia helps to meet a need for escapism, as well as providing light relief amid a continual onslaught of negative news.
More importantly, however, nostalgia harnesses us and makes us feel grounded by returning to a past we know and feel affectionate towards. And this effect is especially potent at a time when the future is so uncertain, says Dr Tim Wildschut, professor of social and personality psychology at Southampton University.
“Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states, for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present,” Wildschut explains.
Psychiatrist Neel Burton agrees that nostalgia can be a powerful means of travelling beyond the confines of reality.
“Nostalgia can lend us much-needed context, perspective, and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life (and that of others) is not as banal as it may seem, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been, and will once again be, meaningful moments and experiences,” he writes in Psychology Today.
“No surprise, then, that nostalgia is more pronounced in uncertain times and times of transition or change.”
So powerful is the feel-good effect of nostalgia, one 2012 study even found that the emotion helped people feel physically warmer on cold days or in cold rooms.
Of course, the effect of nostalgia is sometimes distorted (it makes us imagine the past through rose-tinted glasses); yet still, it can be very helpful in times of crisis.
“Lockdown has really cemented these feelings of nostalgia, making us look back into the past as opposed to being future-focused at a time when the future is so uncertain,” explains Rose.
Fancy your own dose of soothing nostalgia? Try this activities to get in the zone.
6 ways to fuel the happiness habit of nostalgia
Grab yourself a slice of feel-good nostalgia with these throwback activities.
Make a mix tape for someone you love
Remember mix tapes? Your old cassette player has probably long since bitten the dust but you can still channel the habit by burning a personalised playlist onto a spare CD. It’s important that you think long and hard about the exact choice of songs that will suit your muse: to match the effort that might once have been spent endlessly rewinding and recording off radio. The most important part, of course, is the cover, which you can achieve with a cut-up photo montage, coupled with gluey clumps of magazine snippets and a handwritten playlist.
Hold a 90s movie night
Speed, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Clueless. The 90s was a golden era for film-making, brimming with high-octane drama, action and zany comedy. Take a trip down memory lane with a full afternoon of essential 90s film viewing. You could even dress the part by digging out that old pair of combat trousers paired with a strappy top and choker. Better still, you can launch spin-off days for 90s music and 90s TV. That’s the next three weeks sorted then.
Put together a photo album
Long before Instagram ever entered our daily vocab, people just loved to bore their house guests with an endless pile of photo albums stacked neatly on the coffee table. Now’s your chance to curate your very own offline photo collection to bore guests with too. Start with your early childhood and work up from there, pulling together photos from your family, friends or printed out from social channels. The physical act of going through old snaps is deeply soothing, and you’ll be sure to unearth some forgotten gems en-route.
Research and cook up family recipes
Your dad’s Sunday fry-up special. Your nonna’s homemade cannelloni. The timeworn and smudged recipe for fruit cake that has been lovingly preserved and passed down through generations. Every family has a cluster of recipes that speak closely to who they are and the memories they hold dear. Do a little digging to find yours, collate them all together and write a blurb to go with each. Then get cooking, to bring those memories alive and add a sprinkle of your own to the mix.
Revisit your favourite childhood reads
Charlotte’s Web. Matilda. Little House on the Prairie. There’s nothing like the calming solace of your favourite childhood books for taking you back to a place that feels safe and friendly. Cocoon yourself in the world of your favourite authors of yesteryear (Judy Blume, anyone?) and lull yourself into a state of pre-Covid zen, basking in the vast wisdom that pours forth from the pages of Winnie-the-Pooh or The Cat In The Hat. You’re sure to emerge feeling stronger and more relaxed.
Do a de-clutter
Quite aside from the other emotional benefits of having a clearout (more headspace, better decision-making), giving your home the Marie Kondo treatment will get that nostalgia flowing like nothing else. You’ll stumble across that dress you wore to your Sixth Form Prom back in 1998, a stack of letters from yesteryear or the cringeworthy teen diary you owned aged 15. It’s rich pickings as far as feeling sentimental is concerned, and you’ll love every minute.