Ever since coming to college in the US during the pandemic, I’ve been longing for the past more frequently. I pine for the days where I biked with my friends along the riverside park in the sweltering, humid air of Taiwan summers. Even the quarantine memories of lounging on the couch watching anime with my dogs became precious to me. We all know this bittersweet feeling of nostalgia too well, especially during recent turbulent times.
But some might wonder if it is a mistake to get stuck in the past. How much reminiscing is too much, and is the reason we reminisce about the past to escape from the present?
Luckily, the answer to the last question is no. Research shows that memories associated with negative emotions fade more quickly than those associated with positive emotions. It’s known as fading affect bias, which makes nostalgia an effective coping mechanism for rough stages in life.
Thinking back on past moments in your life can help you develop a third-person perspective, and step back from the details of your present to consider how this period might fit into the larger trajectory of your life. A 2015 study found that this creation of distance, what is known as “temporal distancing,” enhances our ability to cope with negative events by helping us realize their impermanence within the bigger picture and increase optimism, inspiration and feelings of purpose in life. Temporal distancing has also been shown to counteract loneliness and boredom, reduce anxiety and depression, support self-reflection and improve decision-making and emotion regulation, among other benefits.
Nostalgia can, to some extent, even help people that deal with trauma: Florence Saint-Jean, a trauma specialist and the executive director of Global Trauma Research, has been using nostalgia as one of her techniques with her clients to cope with difficult times, encouraging them to practice exercises to create and go to their list of mental “safe places” filled with joyful past memories like a fun vacation or happy childhood moments that made us feel loved.
In fact, “an entire field of research in nostalgia studies is being developed” to research the benefits that nostalgia brings. Psychology professor Tim Wildeschut insightfully suggests that we should begin thinking about how happy “memories are a psychological immune response that is triggered when you experience little bumps in the road.”
You may be thinking that you get the idea now: romanticizing the past can be healthy, but how much nostalgia is too much? Deciding to sit in your room all day remembering happy memories of home when feeling homesick does not seem like a good solution. Also, what if your mind tends to, for example, remember and cherish rare happy moments in past abusive relationships?
Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist, recognizes this and points to the importance of self-awareness when navigating the ways in which nostalgia manifests and is used as a coping mechanism. To her, nostalgia is just like many other tools: it is inherently neither good nor bad and just depends on how it is used. “If it’s keeping us anchored in the past and avoiding the future, that’s a problem,” she told The New York Times “because avoidance is actually one of the main things that maintains a trauma reaction.” Even if trauma is not involved, “you can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time,” as the great inventor Charles Kettering once said.
So the next time you are thinking of happy past memories, remember to ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why am I craving or longing for this thing in particular, and what do I hope to get out of it?
Alexander Chao PO ’25 is from Taipei, Taiwan. He enjoys reading about nutrition, watching anime and road cycling.