Does the Past Make You Sad? Maybe That’s Okay

Last week, my family traveled to Arizona and California, where we visited relatives and officially kicked off summer. We soaked up the sunshine (and triple-digit temperatures in AZ!), hunted for lizards and jackrabbits, honed our swimming skills, and indulged in plenty of ice cream and pizza.

If the mark of a good vacation is a feeling of sadness when it ends, this trip fit the bill. As we headed to the San Francisco airport to board our flight home to the Midwest, a familiar melancholy feeling settled in my throat. But I wasn’t just bummed that our trip was over. I always feel nostalgic when I visit my old stomping grounds in Northern California.

On this trip, we took our daughters to some of my favorite childhood spots, including a petting zoo and amusement park where my mom used to bring my brother, sister, and me. Watching my daughters feed the friendly goats, I thought about my mother, wondering if I now stood in the same spot she once did. Decades ago, she must have walked along this same path, the one that wound through the park to the jungle gym, her trusty Minolta camera slung around her neck, her enormous sunglasses resting on top of her head, framed by auburn curls. But now, I was the one holding the camera (well, an iPhone camera anyway), doling out snacks, and lathering sunscreen on my kids, despite their cries of protest.

I wished I could, once again, reach for my mother’s hand as we strolled along. But this time, that would not happen; now I was the mom. Even in this place filled with warm memories, I felt a twinge of sadness.

Later on, I went digging through some boxes at my dad and stepmother’s house, where I unearthed some belongings from my younger years. As I examined a crate of my old CDs, the medium felt as outdated as my teenage musical tastes. My collection heavily favored Aerosmith, with some Gin Blossoms and Stone Temple Pilots sprinkled in for good measure. I turned the plastic cases over in my hands, my eyes searching for the familiar songs that used to play as I drove to school or lounged on my bedroom floor with a friend or two. Again, the sadness ballooned in my throat. I was struck by how these relics of my past, these weathered, inanimate objects, could evoke such strong emotions in me.

Whether triggered by places, physical objects, scents, or sounds, nostalgia is a universal human experience. But does feeling a wistful longing for the past mean that we’re not grateful for our current lives? Or can these emotions coexist? Is there a point at which nostalgia is problematic?

Physicians in the 1600s once labeled nostalgia as a neurological illness with evil origins; fortunately, new studies show that’s far from the truth. Dr. Constantine Sedikides, who studies social psychology, suggests that we can benefit from regularly engaging in nostalgia. Although reminiscing about the past can make us feel sad, the upside is that it enables us to see life in a more meaningful and inspired way. Recalling cherished memories can even give us a psychological boost or help us find new motivation, provided we don’t fall prey to constantly viewing the past through rose-colored glasses and discounting the present. Dr. Sedikides notes that he’s always looking for ways to create more memorable moments in his own life – ones that will inspire future nostalgia.

Feeling sad or wistful about the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think I’ll keep this in mind the next time my travels take me down memory lane.

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