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Remember the good old days

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Nostalgic golden memories are much more than mere sentimentality. They have huge health benefits, researchers say.

Reminiscing about happy memories is a critical component of human consciousness; pervasive, comforting and therapeutic.

New studies show that recalling memories of bygone people and events acts like a cognitive fortress that shields and protects people against dark contemplations generated by contrary or repugnant psychological or physical circumstances.

"To be able to look back on one's past life with satisfaction is to live it twice,'' observed Marcus Valerius Martial almost 2,000 years ago.

According to Clay Rutledge at North Dakota State University, nostalgic reminiscing generates protective armour that promotes well-being. Recollections of the past can help people overcome sadness and isolation, he says.

"Nostalgia enhances personhood,'' concluded Krystine Batcho of LeMoyne College and her colleagures.

Studies by Tim Wildschut at Southampton University show that 38 per cent of people revisit pleasant memories to overcome depression, anxiety or irritation and 34 per cent use nostalgia to deal with loneliness or feelings of abandonment.

"Nostalgia pertains to a personally experienced past,'' explained a team of researchers from Southampton University and the University of Missouri. "A triumphant scene is regenerated and any hurtful or annoying memories are filtered forgivingly'' in order to paint a rosy picture.

Extensive research shows that 28 per cent of nostalgic memories involve a person or several people, and 34 per cent focus on momentous events. About 16 per cent of people reminisce nostalgically at least once a day, 26 per cent three to four times a week, 19 per cent twice a week and 17 per cent several times a month. The most common trigger generating nostalgic thoughts is some manner of negative circumstances, such as feeling frightened or lonely, the research team reports.

"Nostalgia is a positively-toned evocation of a lived past in the context of some negative feeling towards present or impending circumstances,'' concluded researcher F. Davis more than three decades ago. "(The past) is infused with imputations of beauty, pleasure, joy, satisfaction, goodness, happiness and love.''

Idyllic images of the past are conjured up to help cope with present or pending negative challenges, researchers say.

"Nostalgia counters alienation and strengthens community,'' Batcho's team reported.

In addition, nostalgic recollections make people feel more trusting and confident, Wildschut says.

In many cases, nostalgia focuses on lyrics and melodies of songs from the past.

"Lyrics of old songs boost self-identity and help people maintain their values despite some upheaval or problem,'' Batcho concludes.

According to Sonja Lyubormirsky at the University of California, most people do not want to forget the magic and mystery of bygone experiences because they assist in dealing with some unfavourable aspect of current reality.

Batcho and colleagues have concluded nostalgic reminiscing can be therapeutic because it helps boost a sense of self-identity.

"Nostalgia curbs social isolation,'' Wildschut reports.

Until the 20th century, nostalgic thoughts were considered a psychiatric disorder but, more recently, psychologists have concluded they are adaptive, with genuine health benefits.

"Nostalgia bolsters social bonds, increases positive self-image and generates positive affects,'' concluded Rutledge and colleagues Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides and Jamie Arndt.

Nostalgic thoughts are especially helpful when people face "fears, anxieties, discontents and uncertainties,'' the researchers confirmed.

People find solace in the safe haven of comforting nostalgic recollections, and researchers link widespread interest in personal physical memorabilia to a comparable positive impact.

So far, there is no evidence of nostalgic recollections in non-human animals.

Robert Alison is a zoologist based in Victoria.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2010 A11

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