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InfoQ Homepage News The Benefits of Nostalgia: Q&A with Linda Rising

The Benefits of Nostalgia: Q&A with Linda Rising

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Remembering the past can bring about benefits; nostalgic reflection can make us more optimistic. Looking back leads us to feel there is meaning and purpose in our lives which enables us to better navigate the future and help us move forward.

Linda Rising will talk about theoretical and applied perspectives on the benefits of nostalgia at OOP 2021. This conference will be held online from February 8 to 12.

According to Rising, many of us experience nostalgia as a bittersweet emotion. It combines the memory of good times with the ache of loss. You might think that people who are more nostalgic are more prone to sadness and depression, but remembering can actually bring us benefits, Rising explains:

Research shows that nostalgic reflection makes us more optimistic. It reaffirms our social connections. And by remembering important things about the past, it lays out a vision for a hopeful future.

In her talk, Rising will share scientific evidence that remembering the past provides measurable benefits. She will take us back to the "good old days" and through her remembrances, she aims to lead us all to a better place:

This will, hopefully, demonstrate how nostalgia gives us renewed appreciation for the people and places that constitute our lives.

InfoQ interviewed Linda Rising about nostalgic reflection, the practices and techniques we can use, and the benefits that remembering the past can bring us.

InfoQ: How would you define nostalgia?

Linda Rising: Nostalgia comes from the Greek word for homecoming (nostos) and pain (algos). We use the word to describe a sentimental longing or yearning for the past or a wandering in our minds through the experiences we have had. I hope to do that with my presentation at OOP 2021. I have lots of old photos and lots of stories.

InfoQ: You would expect that looking back makes people sad. Is this the case?

Rising: There does seem to be a link between sadness and nostalgia, but in recent years there’s been a considerable amount of evidence that shows the benefits of this practice. It seems to be a positive, very human thing, that we do to help us move forward. In other words, looking back enables us to better navigate the future. It seems to lead us to feel there is meaning and purpose in our lives.

InfoQ: How can nostalgic reflection make us more optimistic?

Rising: We take in input from a variety of sources and create a personal narrative. This also holds true for nostalgia. When we engage in nostalgia, we tend to think of things that are important to us -- that makes us feel our life is meaningful. Autobiographical memory tends to do a better job of holding on to good memories. We know our memories are not accurate; we rewrite them with every recall. The essential elements may be true, but the details, well, we alter them over time for a number of reasons. This optimistic slant is seen in all of us and likely has an evolutionary benefit. If we had really faced up to all the dangers in our lives we would never have made it out of the cave. Too many stories about predators or hostile neighbors would have kept us in hiding and, as a result, they wouldn’t have produced us!

InfoQ: What techniques or practices can we use to reflect back?

Rising: Listening to music, looking at photos, sharing stories, all these things we do, especially at this end-of-year season, are ways of looking back at our lives and building on those memorable times to drive our path to the future. This will be especially hard this year since we can’t gather together physically and either share memories or make new ones as well as we have in years past. I think there are still online avenues for these same rituals. Let’s not get so caught up in what we can’t do that we don’t take advantage of what we can do.

After the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg this year, several of us gathered online and listened to music, told stories and shared our deepest feelings for this amazing woman. It definitely helped.

InfoQ: How about nostalgic reflection at work; what does this look like?

Rising: It may seem a little far out, but I believe we can also do this in the workplace. It wasn’t that long ago that exercises in looking back were regarded with suspicion, and now every organization does some kind of retrospective. What might be missing is the notion of appreciating our past and being grateful for the opportunities we have today.

I can remember working with an organization that created medical equipment. They always held an annual meeting where the founders or those who had been with the company a long time spoke about the impact the company had had and the many lives that had been saved as a result of their technology. It was personal. It was genuine. It touched all the employees and helped them realize what their mission statement really meant.

InfoQ: What are the benefits that remembering the past can bring us? Is it possible to measure these benefits?

Rising: In one experiment, researchers induced nostalgia in participants by playing hit songs from the past. Afterward, these people were more likely than a control group to say that they felt "loved" and that "life is worth living." Researchers also tested the effect in the other direction by subjecting some people to an essay by a philosopher who wrote that life is meaningless because any person’s contribution to the world is "paltry, pathetic and pointless." Others were made nostalgic before reading the bleak essay, and results showed they were less likely to be convinced by it. The nostalgia exposure made life seem worthwhile. According to one nostalgia researcher, "Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. "It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives."

For those who would like to read more about this fascinating research, a good place to start is the home page of Clay Routledge, which includes references to scientific and popular press publications.

InfoQ: Looking back at how 2020 went, what would you like to share with InfoQ readers?

Rising: I spend a lot of time online these days, giving presentations at virtual conferences or working with remote teams. I encounter a lot of negativity about the current situation with a yearning to return to the "way things were." It might be a useful exercise for your readers to pretend that we are through the tunnel (whatever that means) and that we are now looking back at this virus-laden journey. Let’s ask ourselves, "What will we remember from this? What will we have learned? What will bring a smile? A tear? Is there anything we will miss?" Sometimes reflecting on the present as though you were looking back from the future can lead to a greater appreciation for the good things in your life right now.

As I’m writing this, we are celebrating a special holiday in the United States. Even though we spend too much time eating on this day, we also take time for gratitude, especially with friends and family. It’s about a group ritual of nostalgia and appreciation. There is so much evidence for being grateful and for appreciating all the positives. We should practice that every day.

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