Sunday, July 15, 2012

Wallowing in nostalgia can make you happier? See, I told you so.

As my dad grew older, one thing we noticed was that even though he often could not remember what he'd eaten for breakfast that morning or the dog's name, he could recall, with startling clarity, things that had happened during his childhood. In fact, as he lay in a hospice facility getting ready to leave us all, he frequently conversed -- and often laughed -- with his mother, who died in 1936.

I thought about that this morning as I perused the posts on Lost Des Moines (LDM), a Facebook group page that's one of my favorite haunts. (And before I go further, let me address this: Yes, I'm online a lot. But I justify this, when people ask how I find the time, by telling them quite truthfully that with the exception of the news and a few weird cable things, I don't watch much TV. So while my husband is indulging in seven straight episodes of "The Walking Dead," you can find me at the computer. That's not a value judgment; it's just the way we are.)

Anyway ...

My time on LDM has reinforced the fact that people -- myself included -- are comforted by nostalgia. That's not news, but the revelation for me, I guess, was that you don't have to be 850 years old to want to turn back the clock and spend some time in the Land of Long Ago.

It also struck me, as I became familiar with some of the LDM regulars, that they aren't housebound and bored; with very few exceptions, the folks who spend the greatest amount of time on LDM are busy people with full lives.

So I decided to do a little research on why we enjoy talking about department stores that are long-gone, how we felt about our kindergarten teacher or whether the ice-cream man came down our street. According to BBC News' Stephen Robb, it's pretty simple: We like to talk about the past because it makes us feel good.

In a report for the BBC in 2010, Robb cites a study from the University of Southampton that found remembering past times "improves mood, increases self-esteem, strengthens social bonds and imbues life with meaning."

"Most of our days are often filled with with routine activities that aren't particularly significant: shopping for groceries, commuting to work and so forth," the article also quotes psychologist Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University as saying.

"Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful -- to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning."

The article also quotes experts as cautioning people against wallowing constantly in nostalgia. For most of the people I know, though, it's not that way; LDM is more of a nightcap, a place to spend 10 minutes talking about making out at Lost Planet or waiting in the parking lot for Valley West Mall to open on its very first day.

It's also, I think, a way for us to be reassured that we simply belong. My husband and I grew up in different states, so we have no shared frame of reference; it makes him feel comforted, then, to talk with folks back home about their common experiences, just as it makes me happy to talk with others who remember when Valley High School sat on a dirt road and 50th street in West Des Moines was "out in the country."

I do enjoy wallowing in nostalgia, I guess, from time to time. But I'm also very much present in the here-and-now, so I think there's probably a healthy balance there.

Now, if you'll excuse me, a conversation is starting on LDM about Heaven to Seven, an Urbandale store where I was fitted each year for my grade-school uniforms. If that rivets you as much as it does me, take a few minutes and stop on by.

1 comment:

  1. I love this and it took me a while to comment because it made me think of so many things. One, I clearly deal in nostalgia as a board member of my local historical society. But I don't see it as living in the past as much as reminding people who took different paths in life of their shared community. It's a powerful thing and I see it on our Facebook page all the time.

    That reminder of a shared past brings people back together, and that is a really, really nice thing.

    Also, I wonder if this is the same study I heard about last year that dealt with Alzheimer's patients. Details are a little different, but it was about how when Alzheimer's patients spend time with people they know and maybe connect with in the moment, they apparently measurably feel better. This report said that hours later they had forgotten that their loved one or someone from their life talking about the past was even there, but yet their vitals and such were measurably higher for a considerable time after. It was as if talking about the past, even for a time, had a positive effect on their health.

    I found that very fascinating.