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Long considered a disorder, nostalgia is now recognised as a powerful tool in the battle against anxiety and depression. Meet the researchers who are proving that looking backwards improves your outlook on the future
Is it healthy to dwell in the past? Up until about 15 years ago most psychologists would have suggested probably not. The habit of living in memory rather than the present, of comparing how things once were with how things are now, was for several centuries thought at best a trait to avoid and at worst a root cause of depressive illness.
Nostalgia was the soldiers’ malady – a state of mind that made life in the here and now a debilitating process of yearning for that which had been lost: rose-tinted peace, happiness, loved ones.
It had been considered a psychological disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician who attributed the fragile mental and physical health of some troops to their longing to return home – nostos in Greek, and algos, the pain that attended thoughts of it.
Since the turn of this century, however, things have been looking up for nostalgia.
That shift began, to a considerable degree, in the mind of an émigré academic called Constantine Sedikides. Greek by birth, he worked for many years at the University of
4 North Carolina in the United States, but in 1999 he found himself transplanted to the University of Southampton, where he had taken up the role of professor of social and personality psychology.
Like all psychology professors, Sedikides’ default subject of study was his own mental process and in the first months of arriving on the English south coast he was struck by a new, startling habit of mind.
A few times a week he found himself overwhelmed with a sense of his recent home in North Carolina. The atmosphere of his old department, the memory of summer evenings with family and friends in Chapel Hill could be triggered unexpectedly and flood his senses with sounds and smells.
The thing was, these memories did not, make Sedikides unhappy in Southampton – far from it. They rather, he decided, made him feel good about himself and helped to make sense of his journey.
This nostalgia did not seem a malady but a powerful stimulant to feel optimistic about the future.
Sedikides decided to further investigate his feelings.
In the decade or so since, Sedikides tells me in his office in Southampton, nostalgia has become a focus of enquiry in university departments across the globe, a whole new field of academic study that takes in sociology and political science as well as psychology.