The Art of Nostalgia: Using the Past for Relief in the Present Pandemic

When the pandemic put me in lockdown, I decided to make use of extra time at home by sorting through boxes of memorabilia in my closet.

My goal: throw stuff out and reduce clutter.

But as I blew the dust off old family photos, concert ticket stubs, baseball cards and playbills, I enjoyed a fringe benefit: relief from pandemic-induced anxiety.

And I’m not the only one.

It seems like quarantine has triggered more sentimental longing for the past, and the creative arts offer a bounty of ways to bring us together by tapping into our reservoir of happy memories. In one survey on how COVID-19 has affected entertainment choices, over 50% of respondents said they felt better when watching shows and listening to music they had enjoyed during their youth.

With the holiday season approaching and COVID-19 cases skyrocketing, many of us may not be able to see our loved ones in person. But a little bit of nostalgia can help us still feel connected—with ourselves and others —during this difficult time.

Nostalgia Helps You Stay Connected

National surveys show that people are feeling more stressed and lonely because of the pandemic. Nostalgia can help alleviate those feelings of loneliness and may be used as a tool for psychological health.

Waxing nostalgic allows us to feel more connected to our families and friends when we’re apart, by tapping into memories of experiences we’ve shared with them. Research has found that nostalgia also makes people prioritize relationships and connecting with friends. “Nostalgia increases the importance people assign to relationship goals, intentions to pursue the goal of connecting with friends, and the desire to resolve a relationship problem,” note researchers in Frontiers in Psychology. By reminiscing about the past and the people in it, nostalgia can help us remember the importance of those loved ones in the present and future.

Nostalgia is not just the domain for older adults and affects people of all ages. It has been found to increase self-esteem and sense of social connectedness in young people who are disproportionately feeling the pain of social distancing during the pandemic.

Nostalgia can also reduce feelings of disconnection within the arc of one’s own life. “Emotionally connecting with your younger self helps you maintain a sense of continuity over time,” notes psychology professor Susan Whitbourne in Psychology Today. This heightened sense of continuity helps us see our lives as meaningful when facing challenges and uncertainty. In fact, nostalgia has been found to increase feelings of purpose in life and act as an “existential resource.”

Revisiting the Past Revives Hope for the Future

During the pandemic, it can be difficult to feel upbeat about anything. Nostalgia for the past can help boost our optimism for the future. A group of researchers conducted four studies designed to measure levels of optimism in those writing nostalgic narratives, recalling nostalgic events, or recalling songs and lyrics that held a special place in memory. Nostalgic narratives contained more expressions of optimism compared to ones written about ordinary events, and feelings of optimism got a bigger boost when recollecting nostalgic events and songs.

This nostalgic boost in optimism can lead people to engage in healthier behaviors in the future. One study found that nostalgia can trigger optimism about one’s health which is linked to more intentions to exercise and eat well – and more physical activity. In addition, as people get older, nostalgia can make them feel more youthful.

Nostalgia on the Brain

Our understanding of the neuroscience behind nostalgia is still developing. But there is evidence that nostalgia-triggering images activate both reward and memory systems in the brain, which lines up with the pleasure of rediscovering art or entertainment from one’s past. Observation of brain activity shows that thinking about the past or future activates similar reward centers, including the hippocampus, substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area and ventral striatum.

People with a tendency for nostalgia have asymmetrical brain activity patterns in the right-frontal cortex—a neural activity pattern associated with avoidance and negative emotions, which implies negative emotions may trigger nostalgia as a coping mechanism. Although this result is only a correlation, it supports other research showing people use nostalgia to self-regulate their emotions during times of stress.

The Arts as Nostalgia Therapy During Your Distanced Holiday

Creative activities that tap into nostalgia are made to order for the pandemic, especially as the holiday season approaches. Families and friends who are separated can get together virtually to engage in a wide range of artistic projects to keep the holiday spirit alive. Here are a few artful ways to wax nostalgic:

  • Montages of family photos offer countless fun ways to share precious moments of family history preserved on film or digitally, and make a terrific group project. Family members, separated physically due to the pandemic, can collect pictures of holidays past and share them with each other online to enhance the feeling of connection during important times of the year.

When I couldn’t visit my sister on the west coast for her birthday due to the pandemic, I “traveled” to her via a route to our shared past. I gathered up photos of us together spanning our lifetimes, taped them in a long row on the wall, and made a sweeping video of them backed up by a soundtrack of her favorite pop songs from our youth. Not as good as being with her physically, but it made us feel like we were together in a way only the two of us could be.

  • Holiday music sing-alongs tap into what may be the most potent trigger of nostalgic feelings. Music from our past can be very therapeutic. When used in older adults as part of reminiscence therapy, music has been found to lower stress, anxiety and depression.

In our online era, it’s easy to warble together in a family chorus without being together. It’s not the same as going from house to house as street carolers, but pretty close thanks to Zoom. You can also make customized playlists of songs that commemorate firsts and high points in the lives of family members. Listening to “best personal hits” brings out positive memories and feelings, even more so if they can be shared.

  • Scrapbooks that celebrate meaningful relationships and occasions can improve overall wellbeing. In a study of female college students who created scrapbooks and discussed them with others, participants reported that the project improved their overall well-being, both relieving stress and increasing happiness. Here are some tips on how to create your own mood-boosting digital scrapbook.
  • Quilting bees provide the opportunity for families to both mobilize their hands-on creative skills and capture treasured memories. Different members can work on squares of personal significance to them. Images of the squares can then be “stitched together” digitally to create a stunning new heirloom for the family heritage. When getting together becomes safer in the future, the quilt can be stitched together in person.
  • Storytelling in a virtual gathering allows different family members to recount their favorite memories from holidays past. A background video of a crackling fire will add a home-for-the-holidays touch to the regaling. And it all can be preserved on video as a permanent, ever-accessible memory.
  • Old movie night! Staying connected on Zoom as you and family members watch favorite holiday films can recapture a treasured ritual from your past. Maybe you’ll even remember funny comments you made in previous viewings to bring extra mirth to the occasion.

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope? 

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at Be well and stay safe.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Contributor Ed Decker. Ed Decker is a freelance neuroscience writer and former Science/Health Editor at Rewire Me, a wellness website. 

Lead Image: Unsplash / Laura Fuhrman


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