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Thinking About the Past Can Make You a Happier Person Today

happiness, nostalgia, psychology

A famous quote from Buddha says “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” While it isn’t a good idea to beat yourself up about past mistakes, research shows that it can be good for health to revisit them once in a while.

Nostalgia, the sentimental longing for the past, has both psychological and physiological benefits. Says Dr. Constantine Sedikides, professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Southampton, “Nostalgic stories…help us feel physically warmer… (and) we also feel more hopeful about our futures and emotionally closer to those around us.”

The Southampton research team conducted a study where participants read a story about natural disasters with the ultimate consequence of experiencing negative emotions and loneliness. To cope with the depressed mood, the people turned to nostalgia and over time their moods elevated, making them feel less lonely.

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“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” says Dr. Clay Routledge, associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”

Dr. Routledge’s research also shows regular “nostalgizing” can help people cope with concerns about death. The elderly, for example, can bring about comfort and peace by recalling what has made life worthwhile.

Since everyone feels lonely from time to time, it can help to reminisce about a positive time in your past. But don’t overdo it, says Dr. Sedikides. “I think you’ll benefit by nostalgizing two or maybe three times a week,” he says. “Experience is a prized possession…We have it, and nobody can take it away from us. It’s our diamond.”

Just remember not to take past events and beat yourself up for what you should have done. Nor should you look at the past through rose-colored glasses and believe that everything was better then than it is now. Have a healthy respect for who you were then (after all, you did the best with what you had) and where your past mistakes have led you. See the good in each and every day, and you will feel happier, more generous, and less anxious as each day comes.

New York Times - What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows
Association for Psychological Science - More Than Just Being a Sentimental Fool: The Psychology of Nostalgia
Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Arndt J, Routledge C. Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2006.