Is Nostalgia Actually Good for You?

In the spring of 2020, households across the country listened to Elvis Presley and Cyndi Lauper, reread various children’s books, watched The Shawshank Redemption, and FaceTimed with old friends. (I even ventured into a dusty storage area to dig out a circa-1994 mixtape and convert it to a Spotify playlist.)

“Every artist’s dream,” Lauper wrote on Spotify’s blog, “is that their music can be a sense of comfort, of joy, of inspiration.”

It was no coincidence that so many of us escaped to the past during pandemic lockdowns. During times of anxiety and uncertainty, we become more nostalgic, confirms Clay Routledge, a psychologist and the vice president of research and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute, a nonpartisan Washington D.C.–based think tank. Research conducted during the pandemic showed that the more nostalgia people reported, the less likely they were to feel anxious or stressed.

Routledge, a former professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo, is part of a group of researchers who have developed a new line of thinking on nostalgia over the past two decades. People used to assume that nostalgia caused mental anguish. Heck, back in the 17th century, people thought of it as a literal brain disease.

“People used to think it was suffering causing you to feel nostalgic,” Routledge says. “Now we think that nostalgia might be the treatment to suffering. It helps you restore some well-being.”

Little did we know during lockdowns, our nostalgia for pre-pandemic times may have helped us survive aspects of the pandemic. When we feel nostalgic, Routledge says, we experience boosts in mood, feelings of social connectedness, and self-esteem, as well as shifts in the way we view meaning in life. In a book to be published later this year, Routledge explores how his research has led him to believe that nostalgia can influence our future.

Contrary to the belief that nostalgia pushes people backward, “nostalgia is a way that people draw inspiration for guidance and ideas,” he says. “It helps people think, ‘How do we push forward in new, creative ways?’”

That concept is not surprising to Minnesotans who use nostalgia as inspiration for art and to drive people to their businesses. Robin Schwartzman is an artist and educator who has always drawn on nostalgia for inspiration.

As a teenager, Schwartzman worked as a caricaturist at an amusement park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, called Dorney Park. Nostalgia for those years continues to influence her career as she draws inspiration for similar types of leisure spaces, including the mini-golf courses she designs with her husband, Tom Loftus, for their business, A Couple of Putts.

“As I got older, not losing those memories and that inner child was important to me, so I continue to surround myself in those types of spaces,” she says.

During her time as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Schwartzman’s growing realization of the influence of her past on her work led her to research thematic spaces like amusement parks and mini-golf courses.

Since then, she has also researched elements of her father’s past, based on the stories he told her as a child. She has discovered that an entire slice of New Yorkers shares similar memories of vacationing in upstate New York, à la The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

“It’s where American Jews went on vacation,” she says. “I see it as a broader moment in culture that was derived out of antisemitism and became a rich cultural experience. So many people have these memories, but they’re also disappearing unless we preserve it. It’s a moment of time that could get forgotten or lost.”

That doesn’t mean that people want to go back to those days, Routledge notes, dispelling another myth about nostalgia. Over the course of his research, Routledge has collected thousands of narratives of nostalgic memories. When he was working with Brits who were children during World War II, for example, he found that many of them shared extremely meaningful memories of a time of upheaval.

“You can reflect fondly on a certain time but recognize that not everything about it was good,” he says. “They don’t want to go back and relive it, but there is something they learned: the importance of a family who loves you, personal stories of triumph and resilience.”

So, it’s “OK to lean into natural nostalgia,” Routledge says. “When you see something on Facebook or hear an old song, that’s a natural trigger. There are some benefits from [just] that, but you can also be more intentional and, when you feel nostalgic, do something creative. Focus on, Why do I care about that time or that experience?

In other words, you can purposely build nostalgic moments. “If you really savor an experience, you’ll become more nostalgic for it later,” Routledge says. “So, you can cultivate types of experiences where you’re totally engaged and savoring it so you’re building memories for the future.”

By, say, mini golfing. Or… scrapbooking.

Creative Memories, based in Sauk Rapids, is one of the largest companies in the world devoted solely to scrapbooking. When the then vice president (now CEO) of the company heard Routledge talking about nostalgia on a Hidden Brain podcast episode, she promptly invited him to her scrapbooking HQ. Soon, they were collaborating on a research project involving college freshmen. The company’s thesis is that nostalgia helps friends connect and get creative. And everyone suspected that scrapbooking might help homesick college students cope with the transition of moving away from home for the first time. But the new research found a more surprising benefit: Nostalgic scrapbooking seemed to also foster new friendships.

“During the process, people got to know each other,” explains comms director Marnie Beltz. “The actual process of looking at a photo, considering it, thinking about the story behind it, and doing the honor of putting it down on the page put everybody in this really heartwarming kind of place.”

It’s too early to know how many of us will look back on certain moments of the pandemic with nostalgia.

But if scrapbooking sales are any indication, people were certainly seeking it out: Sales at Creative Memories almost doubled starting in March of 2020.

“When you are alone in your apartment, or wherever you had to quarantine, remembering those connections and busting out photos of girls’ nights and Thanksgivings was a lifeline for a lot of people,” she says.

Not a scrapbooker? That’s OK, Routledge says. Other ways of engaging in nostalgia include throwing a retro-themed party, calling a friend from high school, or making that playlist of old favorites. You could also seek out a caricature or mini-golf course. Schwartzman’s favorite courses in the Twin Cities include Lilli Putt in Coon Rapids, built in 1977, and Big Stone in Minnetrista.

“These moments in our histories, when we’re not at work,” she says, “that’s when we’re experiencing our true moments of living and joy.”

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