Nostalgia, as your hilarious uncle likes to say, isn't what it used to be. Instead, according to Dr. Harry Barry, it's better than ever. The GP and mental health specialist, joined Claire Byrne and Dr. Ann-Marie Creaven from the Dept of Psychology at the University of Limerick to talk about our ever-growing fondness for gazing at the past with rose-tinted glasses.
Or, as Harry put it: "Nostalgia is really the sentimental longing for the past, that’s what it is. It’s where we try to emotionally recall memories, really vivid, emotional memories, very often associated with people we loved, or past situations that we encountered."
Modern life, Harry maintains, has got so fast and so complicated and there’s so much negativity in the air, that thinking about and talking about the beauty and joy of the world that nostalgia generates for us is very healthy.
And when asked by Claire to define nostalgia, this is what Harry came up with: "To me, it’s like a positive, a really strong positive emotional feeling that we get as something triggered it, like a – you know, how many of us, Claire, for example, will find our minds flooding with memories when we get a certain smell?"
Smells can be strong nostalgia triggers, as can music. Ann-Marie weighed in on how diverse nostalgia triggers can be and how they can help us when we’re experiencing negative emotions:
"Even loneliness and negative emotions can trigger it, but because nostalgia involves a mix of positive and negative emotions, it can actually help repair negative emotions. So, imagine we’re feeling lonely and we take ourselves back to a time where we were surrounded by friends. That’s a bittersweet memory, but it might help repair our lonely feeling."
Such is the power of nostalgia, Ann-Marie says, there are studies that show how it can not only help us with our negative emotions, but it can also nourish and maintain our positive memories:
"Because nostalgia involves a social context, nostalgic memories usually involve us as a central protagonist thinking about a time where there’s a really important social context, so maybe we’re with family our friends. Maybe it’s a significant event like a birthday or a holiday. Because of that social context nostalgia can actually reinforce our social relationships."
But is there a danger of nostalgia being too rose-tinted? Do we look back at our childhoods and see things as they really weren’t? Although nostalgia itself is, on balance, a positive thing, there are, Ann-Marie tells Claire, potential pitfalls:
"There’s a risk that we idealise, I suppose, memories from childhood as well and the research linking nostalgia to that kind of idealisation isn’t quite there yet, but we do have another line of research on our memories and it’s quite clear that we tend to remember positive events more than negative events. We tend to remember events more favourably than they actually were when they happened."
That’s presumably why the sun was always shining on all those days that we spent happily playing outside as kids. Nostalgia isn’t just about the past, though. Harry says that we’re creating nostalgic memories for our children or our grandchildren all the time and it should be a source of joy for us that we’re involved in the making of what will be happy memories for them for years to come.
And that just reinforces the point that nostalgia is there to give us a mental boost when we need it:
"I think nostalgia helps us find meaning, it helps us to be more positive and optimistic. I think it helps us to realise how fortunate we are in life. I don’t think sometimes we talk enough about how fortunate we are. We always talk about how bad things are, but we never talk about just how fortunate we are. And nostalgia kind of reminds us how fortunate we are, to be grateful for so many things in life."
The role of social media in modern-day nostalgia, Ann-Marie says, means that we don’t have to take down the box of photos, or put on a particular song, our phones will show us a picture from this day 10 years ago, or someone will throw something nostalgic up on Instagram that will have us grinning from ear to ear.
"So our world is almost constructed to bring us these nostalgic memories and I suspect it must do that because people like to engage with these memories. They might share them with other people and they might engage with that social media platform then."
But, of course, nostalgia is a very personal thing and your fond nostalgia might be my barely-remembered trip to Mosney. And you can hear about how our brains interpret and file our memories – and plenty more – in the full conversation between Claire, Harry and Ann-Marie, by listening above.