Nostalgia brings back bittersweet memories of days of yore

Amodhya Samarakoon, Health Editor

Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Inhale the scent of freshly cut grass and let it take you back to that summer when you stood in front of your lawn, arms enveloping parents and siblings to say goodbye before that trip to the airport or long drive to camp. Breathe in deeper and let the feelings of excitement, anticipation, and impending separation anxiety wash over you, and you will feel a longing to immerse yourself in that moment again and experience it once more. This wave of bittersweet emotions that everyone has felt at some point is called nostalgia.

Derived from the latin words nostos, meaning return home, and algos, meaning pain, this word formerly meant acute homesickness. According to an article for Scientific American titled “The Rehabilitation of an Old Emotion: A New Science of Nostalgia” by Clay Routledge, “…nostalgic memories tend to be focused on momentous or personally meaningful life events that prominently features close others (e.g., friends, family, romantic partners).” It’s a dreamy and optimistic emotion, often making one feel warm and fuzzy. However, it’s often accompanied with a tinge of sadness from the realization that the event one is reminiscing over has already passed and cannot be experienced again in person.

Nostalgia is caused when the stimulation of a sense, the most common one being smell, triggers a very specific memory, followed by the emotions associated with it. “Smell doesn’t usually trigger [nostalgia] for me…however something that I could offer up that could be unique is the sound aspect with music. Music is almost like a soundtrack to life, in an aspect,” senior Jonah Mische said. According to a New York Times article titled “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a bit, Research Shows,” by John Tierney, “Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week.” And, studies have shown that experiencing nostalgia, whether on purpose or by accident, has shown to improve mood, combat loneliness and even increase one’s body temperature.

It shouldn’t be called bittersweet, it should be called ‘sweet-bitter.’”

— senior Jonah Mische

One can purposely induce the feeling of nostalgia by reminiscing over a specific event in their life and the emotions they had felt or, in Mische’s case, play certain songs which are heavily linked to a certain event. “Let’s say I put in a CD that I made during the summer, that’s almost targeted nostalgia because I’m trying to feel the emotions associated with summer… it’s a pretty direct access to [those memories] and feelings,” Mische said. “Sunshine” by Atmosphere is one song in particular that brings Mische back to past summers.

However, something many people may not realize is that there is a key difference between simply telling a story to someone and feeling true nostalgia (alone or with other people) and that is the emotion. Experiencing emotions in the past is a central element of nostalgia. Simply telling a friend about a childhood even lacks that emotion. Telling someone about going swimming at camp would most likely not cause one to feel nostalgic. Reminiscing over that specific night out on the lake with a friend who experienced it as well would more easily create a feeling of nostalgia by eliminating the disconnect between listener and storyteller.  This is why it is much more common to experience nostalgia when reminiscing with friends over an event which was experienced deeply by everyone.

“It’s the idea that [for example] … growing up in Northfield you smell cereal in the morning, so anytime I’m home or out and about and I smell the cereal in the air, it reminds me of high school and all of those emotions which I,” Upper School History teacher and next year’s Psychology teacher, Ryan Oto said.

Anytime I’m home or out and about and I smell the cereal in the air, it reminds me of high school.”

— Psychology teacher, Ryan Oto

The act of recalling a memory is similar to a computer bringing up information. “The more neural pathways you make, the easier it will be to recall that memory,” Oto said. This explains why one’s senior prom is easier to remember than definitions on flashcards for an AP exam — the brain assigns particularly emotional events with increased importance by creating more associative neural pathways. And the brain can take anything from a song playing in the background or a smell in the air and connect it deeply to the memory of that specific event.

The feeling of nostalgia used to be considered a negative emotion due the tinge of sadness one often feels, but is actually linked closely with happiness and comforting feelings and, as a result, it is often triggered when one in in a more negative state. “I think short term it’s very sweet..initially you’re very happy because you have those memories…but long term, as soon as you step out of it a little bit [it feels more sad]…it shouldn’t be called bittersweet, it should be called ‘sweet-bitter’,” Mische said.