Saturday, February 04, 2023 | Rajab 12, 1444 H
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The psychology of nostalgia

A few weeks ago, a middle-aged woman came to my clinic with her mother, and when she introduced herself, I took a closer look and said, "You were my teacher in my first year in university". We were both surprised; who could have thought we would meet after nearly thirty years? We talked about other teachers who were around during that time, and she reminded me while smiling that she was a "fresh graduate then and probably the same age as her student." Suddenly, her voice brought up old memories of me, the young medical student who recently moved to the big city, trying to work my way out through college of medicine and feeling the excitement of becoming a doctor. My memory was also flooded with flashbacks from when the examination results were released, announcing our progression to the following year and getting closer to the dream. I was experiencing what psychologists call nostalgia, which is a "longing feeling for the past when things seemed better, easier, and more fun."

From a psychological point of view, nostalgia helps to unite our sense of who we are, ourselves, and our identity over time. We all know that our personality changes as we grow older, so nostalgia motivates us to remember the past in our own life, helps to unite us with our older self, and reminds us of who we have been and then compares that to who we feel we are today". Nostalgia connects us to other people and bonds us to our parents, siblings, childhood friends, and the people we meet during our journey in life.

Some psychologists consider nostalgia as a bitter-sweet emotion. It's sweet because we remember the best times of our lives, while the bitterness comes from the fact that we can never return to that time. The irreversibility of time means that we absolutely cannot go back in time, so it helps us to deal with the conflict of the bitter longing for what can never be again together with the sweetness of having experienced it and being able to revisit it and relive it again.

Sometimes when we experience a change in our life, be it getting married or having our first child, or even retiring from our job, we look for comfort through nostalgia as the past reminds us that we can adapt to such changes in our lives as we did before. On the other hand, one needs to remember that nostalgia can be subjected to recall bias, meaning that we select to recall pleasant memories and seek comfort. Also, since such events already take place, unlike the future, which can be unpredictable and out of our control, nostalgia provides us with a temporary feeling that helps balance our emotions.

Finally, we need to separate occasional nostalgia from a situation where people over-praise the past and constantly wish to go back in time and reject anything new or modern. Such people would eventually find it challenging to deal with those around them and become trapped in the past. This situation may push them to isolate themselves from others, negatively impacting their psychological well-being.

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