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

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - NOSTALGIA - Words tim adams




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.

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