Looking to Our Past: Escapism or Exploration?

Nostalgia can promote healthy coping during difficult times.

Posted Nov 22, 2015

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

In a culture focused on progress and futuristic aspirations, why would anyone want to spend time wallowing in nostalgic reverie?  Nostalgia has had a longstanding reputation as a maladaptive preoccupation with the past that can inhibit appreciation of the present, realistic problem solving, and moving forward.  The empirical evidence, however, has yielded a far different picture of nostalgia as a healthy dimension of human experience.

To live only in the moment would not only be undesirable, it would not be possible in any meaningful way.  The moments we experience are imbued with the meaning we have accumulated over a lifetime.  Parents witnessing their son or daughter receive their college diploma or win a sports award are experiencing the culmination of joys and struggles, milestones and setbacks, admiration and anxiety, and most of all, love.  The meaning of the moment of achievement is rich with all the past that has contributed to it.  The power of the past is not to prevent parent or child from moving forward, but to energize leaping forward into an unknown future.

In a time of rapid social and technological change, nostalgia motivates the rehearsal of past experiences that can remind us of our authentic self.  In the midst of a kaleidoscope of social and personal transformation, nostalgic reminiscence grounds us with the reminder of the one constant—we are the source of our thoughts, actions, and feelings across time and change.  By maintaining a relationship with old parts of our self, we can measure our development and sustain a sense of continuity.  Nostalgia allows us to visit, not remain with, our former self.  Especially during difficult times, reconnecting with our past self can restore the comfort and security we once had.  Miranda Lambert expressed such a restorative power in the song, The House That Built Me.  Visiting her childhood home, she explains:  “I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing.  Out here it’s like I’m someone else.  I thought that maybe I could find myself.”

Reaching back helps us rediscover the people who became part of who we are today.  Parents, coaches, friends, relatives, religious and social role models all contributed, for better and for worse, to the person we became.  We define our self in part in terms of our relationships.  Jessica Andrews sang:  “I am Rosemary’s granddaughter, the spitting image of my father.”  Remembering that we are separate but connected strengthens us for the tough times.  As Andrews sang:  “Should my tender heart be broken, I will cry those teardrops knowin’ I will be just fine, ‘Cause nothin’ changes who I am.”  In times of disappointment or regret, knowing that people have loved us for who we are reminds us that we are worthy of being loved.

The American novelist Hawthorne observed that in every crisis the greatest consolation, derived from the transience of all things, is the realization that “this, too, will pass away.”  Nostalgic remembering promotes this insight and helps us keep perspective.  Research has shown that nostalgia strengthens our social connectedness and helps us regulate our moods.  But does refuge in the past encourage us to avoid dealing with our problems? 

Research shows that in stressful times, nostalgia-prone people cope by understanding and releasing their emotions and by seeking emotional support from others.  They benefit not only by receiving comfort from others, but also by engaging in direct problem resolution.  Research has shown nostalgia to be associated with greater attention to thinking and strategizing and then taking action to improve the situation.  In circumstances beyond a person’s control, nostalgic people are more likely to benefit from positive reappraisal, learning something constructive from the experience.  Contrary to the negative stereotype of nostalgia as escapist or as a retreat to an idealized nonexistent past, nostalgia proneness is not related to dysfunctional coping strategies such as denial, disengagement, self-blame, or substance abuse.  Nostalgic reverie is not just an attempt to live in the past or a search for solace in fantasy.  It is a visit to our past to find strength and insights that will help us overcome adversity and forge ahead.

How does rehearsing our past help us cope with the present?  Research has suggested that our childhood experiences form a foundation for learning how to cope with stress and challenging situations.  As children we watched our parents budget finances during less prosperous times, help others less fortunate, or care for elderly relatives or friends in need.  Healthy relationships during childhood foster the trust necessary to disclose our confidences and ask for advice and assistance.  Having been nurtured, we know how to nurture.  Having suffered and survived difficult events, we have the courage and confidence to persist and overcome adversity.  Solitude during childhood, enjoying peaceful times at the lake or biking along a nature trail, taught us to reflect, plan, and evaluate before acting, to appreciate the meaning of our experiences, and to discover who we are and would like to be. 

The innocence of childhood can protect the young from the complete harshness of reality.  In his memoir, Stefan Szpuk reminisced about his boyhood during the 1932-1933 forced famine in Ukraine: “My thoughts often returned to those years when I’d run around our village back home with Volodimir and our friends in such sunshine.  Even though we were hungry boys with bare feet, we were happy enough.”  Memories of joy amid adversity can be handed down to children and grandchildren.  Recounting childhood days during the Great Depression in the United States, one father laughed as he described finding a carrot or some beans in a vegetable garden on his way to school.  When stressful times rob us of hope or happiness, we might rediscover sources of joy and meaning by looking in our past.

Further reading

Batcho, K. I.  (2015).  What your oldest memories reveal about you.  Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201504/what-your-oldest-memories-reveal-about-you 

Batcho, K. I.  (2013).  Nostalgia:  Retreat or support in difficult times?  American Journal of Psychology, 126, 355-367.

Batcho, K. I.  (2013).  Nostalgia Inventory.  App for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.  Okechukwu, developer.  http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nostalgia-inventory/id591429922?mt=8

Batcho, K. I.  (2012).  Better than yesterday:  Becoming more than who you were.  Psychology Todayhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201208/better-yesterday-becoming-more-who-you-were

Batcho, K. I.  (2012).  Childhood happiness:  More than just child’s play.  Psychology Today.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201201/childhood-happiness-more-just-childs-play

Batcho, K. I., Nave, A. M., & DaRin, M. L.  (2011).  A retrospective survey of childhood experiences.  Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 531-545.