How to harness the magical power of nostalgia

As another Christmas day approaches, feelings of nostalgia are as rife in the air as the smell of pine needles and roast turkey, and the sound of Mariah sweetly serenading us with "all I want for Christmas is you"...

I love this time of year, where tradition comes alive and I reminisce on fond childhood memories like the anticipation of Santa coming to visit, leaving him out milk and cookies (and of course carrot for the reindeers) and waking up on Christmas morning to take it in turns to unwrap our pressies, watching the delight on each other's faces as we received coveted items from our wish list!

This year I'm feeling particularly sentimental, perhaps because I was away last Christmas so I missed our typical family traditions, and most likely also because we are nearing the end of another decade (can you believe it?)

Although this time of year is a powerful trigger for nostalgia, there are so many other ways that our senses can bring it about all year round, for example the smell of Dettol always reminds me of my incredible high school trip to India (I would sanitise my hands every 5 minutes), the sound of any song by The Cranberry’s takes me back to the days of dancing around in my undies as a toddler with Mum and Dad belting out tunes in the background, and the sweet taste of pavlova, crunchy on the outside but light and melting in the middle, transports me to fortnightly family dinners at Nanna’s house throughout my childhood and teenage years.

Nostalgia feels warm, comfortable and familiar, and I love using it as a deliberate tool to strengthen a mindset of positivity and gratitude - not just during December, but all year round.

So how does this tool work?

To me nostalgia feels like powerful wave of sentimentality that I give into - a memory of a time and place so strong that I’m transported right back to a certain moment as if I’m actually standing there once again. It gently nudges me out of my daily routine just enough to remind me how grateful I am to be a human with emotions and memories and experiences, with dreams and a bigger purpose than just what’s next on my to do list.

Like a comforting friend, it encourages me to slow down, be present, to breathe a little slower, a little deeper, and just be. It’s a reminder of the bigger picture.

As it turns out, these benefits are not just my own thoughts - studies have shown just how powerful nostalgia can be in helping to boost feelings towards challenges and to feel better about your past, present and future.

If you're into the science (and not just my opinion) here are some findings from Erica Hepper, Ph.D., a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey in England (below is an excerpt from Jeanette Leardi’s article in the HuffPost):

"When we experience nostalgia," Hepper explains, "we tend to feel happier, have higher self-esteem, feel closer to loved ones and feel that life has more meaning. And on a physical level, nostalgia literally makes us feel warmer." In addition, in an August 2013 study published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hepper and her colleagues showed that nostalgia can produce increased optimism about the future.

There's no reason why we can’t deliberately try and trigger feelings of nostalgia whenever we like, in order to harness these positive powers, particularly when we might be feeling overwhelmed from our daily lives and the routine cycle of ‘busy-ness’ we often find ourselves trapped in.

How great, particularly during chaotic times, would it be to be able to use this tool to take a moment to feel a little happier, a little warmer, and to feel like our life has more meaning?

So, to help you trigger these wonderful benefits I've popped together some suggested 'nostalgia-starters' that I'm going to try and use moving forward, and I hope they may be helpful to you as well:

  • Make a playlist: try and think about 5-10 songs that remind you of special moments in your life - from significant life events to smaller moments it time. Perhaps it’s your graduation song, a song from your first ever CD, the theme song from a favourite movie or TV show, your wedding song or a tune that you danced to at your debutante ball. It could be a song you used to make dances up with your friends or family as a kid (this is a nod to my cousins and our flawless routine to ‘Follow Me’ by Craig David), or maybe it’s a song you remember being played over and over again on your schoolies trip (every time I hear ‘Don’t you worry Child’ by Swedish House Mafia I’m back dancing on the tables again in Byron Bay). It might even be a song that reminds us of a sad time, or a person no longer with us ('Fix You' by Coldplay will always bring on the waterworks for me). Compile these into a playlist and every now and then, on the days where life feels chaotic, have a listen and feel your perspective shift and daily stresses slip away.

  • Enjoy comfort food: it saddens me that comfort food has somehow become intertwined with a perception of ‘junk food’ - like we don’t already get enough pressure about what we eat! The true concept of comfort food is a meal that provides nostalgic or sentimental value, and brings about joyful emotion (regardless of whether it’s high-carb, packed full of sugar or filled with super-foods!). For some, comfort food may be an indulgent chocolate cake made from an old family recipe, for others it might be a tasty bowl of fruit and crunchy granola that reminds them of a summer getaway, or it could be both - and that’s perfectly ok! Some of my own personal comfort foods that I love to enjoy include homemade pumpkin soup with a side of crusty sourdough, particularly when I feel a cold coming on, as this is what my mum would have made to look after me as a kid, and fish and chips by the beach in summer as this was a treat in our family. If I’m feeling like life’s just getting too serious - a serving of fairy bread always makes me smile, and if I want to be in a celebratory mood - a cheese platter never fails to do the trick. By far the most regular comfort food I make is spaghetti bolognaise (I might have even made this for dinner last night), an easy dish that was a staple in my household growing up and comforts me in any occasion - especially when paired with some garlic bread and a glass of red. Yes, all of these foods are absolutely delicious, but my fondness for them is more than the taste, it’s the warmth and memories associated with them that is most powerful, even if it’s only at a subconscious level.

  • Re-watch a favourite TV series or movie (or read a book) from a different time in your life: We all had favourite TV shows and movies growing up, whether or not it was simply because you liked the drama, connected with the characters, found it entertaining (or perhaps it was all you were allowed to watch by your parents)! Re-watching old episodes of Home and Away where the characters feel like old friends always makes me feel comforted, and watching any of the Harry Potter films takes me right back to the curious and adventure-seeking 13-year-old who refused to put the books down and read all throughout the night. Sometimes, shows or movies may have left such a mark on you that they helped shape your values. In my case, as a teenager, Gilmore Girls not only strongly encouraged my coffee habits, but also made me desperate to be a fiercely independent woman and unapologetically me. Recently, when my long-term relationship ended, I needed a boost of this feeling and started re-watching all seasons on Netflix. I can honestly say that bingeing all 7 seasons helped remind me of the independent woman I'm constantly striving to be (if only I could be as witty as Lorelai too!)

  • Catch-up with old friends you haven’t seen in a while: Often when I catch up with a group of girlfriends from high-school or uni that I don’t get to see all the time, I find myself absolutely buzzing with energy afterwards. Usually the conversation involves lots of reminiscing about the greatest stories - from that time the teacher (won’t name names) tripped over the violin case and fell over in front of the whole class (don’t worry, she wasn’t hurt), to remembering the scandals that ended up with people being suspended or expelled, and cringing over boy dilemmas from the past. Discussing all of these memorable moments is a great way to put everything in perspective - not only to see how far we’ve come, but as a bit of a reminder that no matter what is going on at the moment - whether it be good, bad, or other, that life is constantly changing and it’s exciting and unpredictable - who knows where we'll end up in another 5 or 10 years!

There are many other ways to help you trigger nostalgia - different scents (geez my first ever Britney Spears perfume takes me back), old photos, items and more -, and these are likely to be very personal for each of us, so next time you feel that wave emotion come over you, give in, and take note.

Remember what prompted the feeling so you can put it in your toolkit and harness it again when you’re most in need of a boost, a shake-up from the to-do list, a reminder of the bigger picture. or just the feeling of a warm hug!

Do you have any nostalgia triggers? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below.


Recent Posts

See All