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Living in the Past Isn’t Really That Unhealthy — As Long as It’s Your Own

Everyone knows at least one, “Those were the good ol’ days” kind of guy. The guy who’s still talking about his friends from his old job, even though he’s been at this one for four years. The guy who talks about his old college drinking escapades every time you go for a night out. The guy who, essentially, seems unable to find anything in his current life that measures up to the past he’s endlessly reliving in his head.

It should go without saying that this tendency is annoying as fuck to everyone else — I have never met Jim from accounting at your old job, and I don’t want to hear about how funny he was ever again — but there’s good news for the people doing it: Despite what every self-help guru or mindfulness practitioner has ever said or written, living in the past isn’t nearly as toxic as you’ve been led to believe.

Now, it’s true that it’s not a healthy look. According to Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College, one reason why a person might decide to live in their past could be because they’re struggling through a difficult time in their life. “Someone who tries to live in their personal past is often struggling to cope with a painful transition or loss in their lives,” says Batcho. “After emotionally-charged changes in important relationships (such as a divorce or a lost friendship) some people are tempted to relive the past by revisiting memories of the good times over and over again.”

But Batcho continues that most of the research done on nostalgia for one’s own past suggests that it’s pretty healthy, and can even help people feel less alone during difficult times. “An occasional mental walk down memory lane helps to counteract loneliness by reminding people of the relationships that have been important to them,” she says. “Nostalgia is associated with having greater social support, greater ability to reach out to others and healthier ways of coping with problems during difficult times.”

So why, then, does it get such a bad rap?

Batcho believes the negativity surrounding personal nostalgia is twofold. First, she thinks that, because nostalgia originated in 1688 as an invented term used to designate a medical disease, the reputation it got was a negative one. As per John Tierney, writing for The New York Times: “Nostalgia had been considered a disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — nostos in Greek, and the accompanying pain, algos.”

In more recent times, nostalgia was cited as a form of psychosis: “In the 19th and 20th centuries nostalgia was variously classified as an ‘immigrant psychosis,’ a form of ‘melancholia’ and a ‘mentally repressive compulsive disorder’ among other pathologies,” writes Tierney in the same New York Times article.

“The disease model survived and influenced attitudes toward nostalgia for about 300 years,” says Batcho. “It wasn’t until serious social science research began revealing the benefits of nostalgia empirically that the prevailing assumption of it as negative shifted to positive views.”

Second, Batcho suggests that because technological and scientific progress have brought forth so many improvements in our lives, we’ve become obsessed with moving into the future — therefore, living in the past is seen as problematic. “We’ve become convinced that moving forward is better than either remaining static or ‘retreating’ to the past,” Batcho adds.

Batcho says that nostalgia is better categorized as a survival mechanism that can help people overcome adversity. To her point, a series of seven studies published in 2015 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — cited in an article in The Wall Street Journal last year — claimed that nostalgia can even be motivating. “Compared with the other memory groups, participants primed with nostalgia reported stronger intentions to pursue their social goals,” writes Jennifer Breheny Wallace for The Wall Street Journal. “Researcher Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, suggests that such nostalgic reflection bolsters a person’s confidence about being able to meet future social goals.”

Still, there are some consequences to living in the past. “Clinical observations suggest that when living in the past becomes the dominant preoccupation in a person’s life, it can inhibit moving on to develop new skills and interests and to forge new or strengthen existing relationships,” says Batcho. “Being trapped in the past means being caught in a cycle of repetitive memories of the past that can lead to depression and the risk of becoming socially disengaged or isolated.”

The consequences of nostalgia are even more heightened if the person is nostalgic for a particular time period, rather than reflecting on their own real-life memories. “People who find themselves spending more and more time trying to live in a recreated past period in history (such as the Victorian era) are often dissatisfied or unfulfilled in their current lives,” explains Batcho. “They might feel alienated by a society today that doesn’t share their values, interests or priorities.” This, as Batcho notes, is because historical nostalgia is usually connected to cynicism, alienation and pessimism.

Either way, if you’re spending too much time living in the past, you could be missing out on experiencing new things. “In both cases, if the nostalgia becomes extreme, there’s the risk of becoming reluctant to live in the present or plan for the future,” says Batcho. “Choosing to avoid present challenges robs someone of the possibility of rich new experiences and healthy relationships and can harm the people who depend upon them (such as their children, their spouse or their friends).”

So as in all things, moderation is key: While a healthy appreciation of the past enhances your present, obsessing over it might derail things.

But hey, enough about that — let’s remember the beginning of this article, those good ol’ paragraphs when I told you that nostalgia was actually good for you. Those were the days, eh?