The word “nostalgia” derives from two Greek words: “nostos” meaning “return home” and “algos” meaning “ache.” It was first coined by a Swiss physician as a medical condition after observing homesickness amongst deployed soldiers.
Over time, the meaning of nostalgia broadened to encompass sentimental feelings; a longing for past experiences, relationships, and places. Nostalgia is uniquely tinged with both positive and negative feelings— a sense of bittersweetness.
When we reflect on positive memories, we activate the reward pathways of the brain and get a release of dopamine. Reflecting on negative experiences can also give us positive experiences in shaping our future behaviors as to avoid repeating bad decisions.
Overall, feelings of nostalgia activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the higher-order cognitive part of the brain associated with memory retrieval, which helps in directing our focus and attention, and with decision-making. Aristotle emphasized the importance of memories in shaping a person’s moral character and personal identity. The musician, Owens Lee Pomery, said that “nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense and the past perfect.”
So, while it’s easy for us to reflect only on positive past experiences, we shouldn’t completely shut ourselves off from negative experiences.
This certainly doesn’t mean digging up past traumatic experiences,
but engaging with bittersweet memories,
reflections marked with healthy regret,
engaging in nostalgia.
What are some past experiences that make you feel proud?
What are some experiences that you wish you handled differently?