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Cali Owings, Published December 08 2013

Psychologist: Nostalgia good for mental health

If you go

What: December Science Café: “The Power of the Past: How Nostalgia Improves Our Psychological and Social Health.”

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Stokers Basement, Hotel Donaldson, Fargo

Info: Open to the public. Attendees must be 21 or older or accompanied by a parent or guardian. For more information, contact Keri Drinka at keri.drinka@ndsu.edu or (701) 231-6131.

FARGO – A trip down memory lane may improve your mood and bring other psychological health benefits.

North Dakota State University psychology professor Clay Routledge will share his research about the benefits of nostalgia during a talk Tuesday as part of the school’s monthly Science Café at the Hotel Donaldson.

From movie remakes and the resurgence of old-fashioned trends to television shows like “Mad Men” that celebrate an era gone by, Routledge said people are “bombarded” by nostalgia in their daily lives.

Routledge himself is nostalgic about the arcade games he grew up with in the ’80s and devoted a so-called “man cave” in his basement to them.

But looking back on the past hasn’t always been seen in a positive light.

Since the term was coined in the 17th century, nostalgia has been historically viewed as a negative. It was tied to homesickness and the notion that people were too busy clinging to the past to enjoy healthy lives in the present.

Over his past 10 years in the field, Routledge said research suggests nostalgia “not only is not bad for you, it actually makes you happy.”

Revisiting fond memories can even give people the confidence and psychological comfort to move forward in their lives or make changes, he said.

In the lab, Routledge induces nostalgic feelings through writing exercises and music. In one experiment, participants listen to a song from their past and researchers measure psychological health outcomes like mood, self-esteem and optimism. Other participants listen to a song they like but have only recently heard. Those in the nostalgia condition experience more psychological benefits than the other group.

People can purposefully evoke nostalgia in themselves by revisiting old memories. Routledge pointed to the recent phenomenon of “Throwback Thursday” in which people post pictures from their past on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

In other cases, returning to old memories is a psychological defense mechanism.

“When people are stressed out or a negative mood or lonely, they become more nostalgic,” he said. “We do see nostalgia as a regulatory and … coping resource that people employ to restore psychological well-being.”

The holidays are particularly nostalgic because they’re about tradition and repeated experiences.

“You don’t look forward to (Thanksgiving dinner) because it’s a novel experience,” Routledge said.

Instead, the holidays are a time to relive experiences from the past and share them with new generations.

It’s also a reflective time of year because the holidays are such a social time and people are very nostalgic about relationships.

“The holidays are a very social time when we get together with extended family, people that you don’t see very often, certainly not every day, and you talk about old times.”

In that way, he said nostalgia is good for not only your psychology health, but social health as well.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599