Sometimes, it’s okay to not be in the moment.
by Destiny Femi
Looking back on our past usually has a negative connotation. In fact, the word nostalgia was originally coined by a Swiss doctor named Johannes Hoffer in 1688 to describe a neurological disease. It was seen as an intense feeling of homesickness experienced by those who were separated from their friends and family for a long time.
Before coming across the studies in this article myself, I did all I could to not think about the past. Like many people, I saw being able to stay in the moment all the time as a superpower I needed to cultivate for mental balance and clarity.
We usually assume that thinking about the past indicates that the present is unpleasant (and sometimes, this is the case). But as much as it’s good to be present, always fighting to stay in the moment all the time is not just exhausting but impossible.
Though looking back on one’s past has its downsides, like when you think about a negative experience, research suggests that the upsides outweighs its down sides. Here are three ways looking at the past can be beneficial to us.
It Gives More Meaning to Life
Having a sense of meaning in life requires us to know what our life is about. We have to be able to connect the dots between events and construct redemptive narratives. The thing is, we are constantly telling ourselves stories whether we do it intentionally or not and the stories we tell ourselves determine how meaningful we feel our lives are.
In a series of studies, where nostalgia is experimentally induced (e.g, by having people write about nostalgic events), it was observed that participants had a better sense of self-continuity. They saw with more clarity, the connection between their present and their past. This made them look differently on all the hardships they’ve faced, now seeing all the valuable lessons they learned and the improvements they’ve made because of them.
The reason this is the case is that we usually underestimate the significance of individual experiences as we are too busy being carried away by our worries, emotions, and responsibilities. Studying hard for your exams or driving your kids around while you’re stressed out doesn’t feel like fun at the moment.
But when we deliberately look back on our ordinary experiences with more clarity, we can find them unexpectedly more interesting, meaningful, joyful, and in some cases, extraordinary. We’ll no longer see the stress in studying, but the joy in graduating with a good degree. Driving your kids around no longer feels stressful, it’s now looked upon as quality time spent together.
It Can Make Us More Hopeful About the Future
Though we tend to think that nostalgia can leave us stuck in the past, looking back fondly at experiences helps us look forward with more optimism. Especially during rough times, looking back on the good times can help remind us that things have the potential to get better again.
The most important reason Viktor Frankl was able to survive the hard conditions of going through three Nazi concentration camps was because of his memories of his time with his wife. Day after day, he thought about how good it would be to be in her arms and relive those memories. As he wrote in Man’s Search For Meaning:
“My mind clung to the image of my wife… I didn’t even know if she was still alive… but at the moment, it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved.”
Sometimes, things can be so tough and unpleasant that it feels like it can only get worse. Taking a moment to look back on the happy times can be a good way to prevent us from becoming hopeless and nihilistic.
It Makes Us Warmer
Nostalgia, in addition to giving us psychological comfort, can also make us physically more comfortable; it literally makes us feel warmer. In a series of studies, it was observed that nostalgia could help in homeostatic function, helping us regulate our body temperature.
The researchers found that participants felt warmer when listening to nostalgic music and those who recalled or wrote about a nostalgic event perceived ambient temperature as higher. Nostalgic participants showed a higher tolerance for cold during a task that involved submerging their hands in ice.
This finding implies that a good way to have a good time on a cold winter day is to put on a collection of good old music and, if you like, take a look at those beautiful old pictures with your loved ones. Good old memories warm our hearts.
Sometimes we get too attached to events emotionally; other times things happen too quickly. In some cases, things just don’t make sense at the moment. Looking back on events can make us see things in a detached manner. And even though no one has a flawless past, we can still learn to see the meaning and the lessons in seemingly ordinary and sometimes unpleasant events.
Some day, today is going to be our source of nostalgia; be open to new experiences even as you look back at the past from time to time. To recap, looking back on the past:
- Gives more meaning to our lives
- Makes us more hopeful about the future
- Warms our hearts.