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The case for nostalgia

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... physicians and researchers associated nostalgia with depression, immigrant psychosis, and other psychological maladies. It was thought that people who longed for the past must be unhappy in the present.

Katie Blanchard loves to reminisce about the past with the senior residents at Youville Assisted Living. As one might expect, the residents have a large fund of collective memories, but Katie, an activities director in her 30s, likes to get the conversation started by sharing her own memories of summers spent with her grandparents on Little Sebago Lake. It was here that she learned how to swim, fish, skip rocks, play cards, identify plants, and water ski. Most importantly, the lake house is the one place on earth that she associates most strongly with the memory of her grandparents. Today it remains a conduit to past memories and an enduring place of solace. "The camp is a big part of who I am today," she tells residents. "I feel lucky to be able to go back there every year with family."

Reminiscing about the past is more than just an easy way to pass the afternoon with a group of seniors. A healthy sense of nostalgia can be psychologically and spiritually comforting on a personal level, while binding people together as a community. Shared memories need only the slightest prompting to get people talking about the past. Such prompts may be conversational, or might involve the old movies or songs that shaped childhoods. If you have ever spent time in a senior living community, you might have noticed that almost everyone knows the same hit songs from the 40s and 50s. Songs by Sinatra, Doris Day, or Rogers and Hammerstein always get people singing along together and recalling moments when they first heard these songs as children.

We did not always think of nostalgia as an occasion for communal bonding. When Joannes Hoffer, a 17th century Swiss doctor, first invented the term, he described nostalgia as a "neurological disease of demonic cause." In later centuries, physicians and researchers associated nostalgia with depression, "immigrant psychosis," and other psychological maladies. It was thought that people who longed for the past must be unhappy in the present.

Attitudes toward nostalgia have certainly changed since then. One social psychologist, Dr. Constantine Sedikides, has devoted a great deal of professional study to the topic. His professional interest stemmed from personal experience. While residing in Europe, Dr. Sedikides began experiencing sharp feelings of longing for Chapel Hill, the college town where he received his education. This nostalgic yearning was not negative, but in fact had a certain irresistible sweetness that he tried to describe to his colleague. As he told the colleague, "Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward."

Sedikides devoted much of his professional research to studying the link between nostalgia and well being, and came to some uplifting conclusions. Acording to John Tierney, who wrote about Sedikides in a 2008 article for The New York Times, "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."

While nostalgia may lead to feelings of sadness, it just as often enriches our experience of the present. Poets in the throes of nostalgia have used it to their advantage. In his "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," William Wordsworth describes a nostalgic summer experience that reaches sublime heights. In the middle of July, the poet has returned to a spot in nature where he used to gallivant as a younger man. The place is fondly remembered for many reasons, but most of all because of its strong associations with his sister. In spite of a five year absence from the area, he has continued to think of those sacred acres a few miles below Tintern Abbey --

in hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration: -- feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure

The poet's reminiscences have provided him with an enduring sense of connection to his own past. Like Wordsworth, we can benefit from our own reminiscences. The ability to wax nostalgic is the privilege of a well-lived life, an enjoyable practice that never stops yielding emotional dividends.

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.

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