Nostalgia refers to those wistful, sentimental feelings that surface when you recall significant experiences, relationships, places, and other bits of the past.
Often, nostalgia inspires positive emotions — a sense of meaningfulness or life purpose, social connection, and optimism. But it can have a downside, too — a lingering aftertaste with an unpleasant bite.
Longing for the past (something you can’t reclaim) can fuel dissatisfaction with the present. Nostalgic depression, then, can describe a yearning colored with deeper tones of hopelessness or despair.
Experts don’t consider nostalgic depression a specific subtype of depression. All the same, fixating on rosy memories of happier times and better days can affect your mood and motivation to make the most of your life in the present.
Once upon a time
Experts did consider nostalgia a mental health condition at one point.
Physician Johannes Hofer first used the term in the late 1600s to describe the anxiety, homesickness, disordered eating, insomnia, and other symptoms experienced by Swiss mercenaries during their time fighting away from home.
By the 1800s, nostalgia was considered more of a melancholic depression tinged with homesickness and loss.
In the late 1900s, sociologist Fred Davis began to draw clear distinctions between nostalgia and homesickness. Others took his work further, highlighting nostalgia’s possible consequences and potential benefits.
A glimpse of a familiar face, the refrain of a long-forgotten song, a faint fragrance that pulls at your memory — any of these can inspire a deep and pervasive longing for people, places, and things that are no longer part of your life.
You can’t always trust those glowing snapshots, though.
You see, memory fragments are just that: fragments. As the flowing sands of time wear them down, you’re left with an incomplete picture of the past.
The pieces that remain usually aren’t entirely accurate, either. Your brain has a tendency to apply Instagram-worthy filters to your memories, which can render them softer and more appealing than the actual event.
Say you’re riding your bike along the river. A chorus of frogs harmonizes with the soothing rush of water, and the evening breeze cooling your face carries the scent of rain. These sensations provoke a wisp of memory: biking past a similar river on your way home from high school, with nothing to do except grab a snack and retreat to the privacy of your bedroom.
“If only life were that simple now,” you think wistfully. “School and homework were so much easier than work and everything else I have to do.”
What you might not remember:
- regular conflicts with your parents
- difficulties to keep your grades high enough to earn a scholarship to a college far from home
- pain of your first heartbreak
So, why does that matter? What’s wrong with remembering the good times?
Often, nothing. Still, getting caught up in an idealized rewrite can leave you comparing your present day to a past you didn’t actually enjoy all that much.
This yearning can eventually factor into emotional distress, including symptoms of depression.
Worry and rumination
Nostalgia might cast a longer shadow if you have a habit of worrying or often find yourself fixating on dark and unwanted thoughts.
A 2012 study explored potential negative effects of nostalgia in a sample of over 200 adults. The participants, most of whom were university students, answered questions about their:
- mood, including if they experienced anxiety or depression
- tendency to worry
- nostalgic memories, which they were asked to describe using visual imagery and other sensory details
According to the results, participants who tended to worry more often also reported stronger feelings of depression and anxiety after talking about their past.
Sadness or regret
Looking back on the distant past can provoke symptoms of depression when you believe the present doesn’t measure up.
If you failed to achieve things you hoped to accomplish, your bright enthusiasm for the future may have long since sputtered out. Maybe you wish you could return to your youth, when you envisioned life as a sprawling blank canvas to fill with your dreams.
You might even feel guilt, as part of your depression symptoms, for letting loved ones (or yourself) down by making promises you couldn’t keep.
Through several diary studies, researchers found evidence to suggest that nostalgia can sometimes create a cycle of distress:
- You might notice spontaneous nostalgia as you go about your day, especially after unpleasant events, like a fight with your partner or a bad day at work.
- As a result, you might focus even more on the past and fixate on negative thoughts. Eventually, you could begin to feel sad, even somewhat depressed.
- This distress can, in turn, prompt further nostalgia.
What’s more, existing feelings of depression or sadness can lay yet another filter over the past. In other words, if you tend to get nostalgic when you’re already feeling down, your memories might further darken your mood.
Loneliness and loss
Nostalgia often surfaces when thinking of loved ones, both those you haven’t encountered in some time and those you no longer spend time with.
If you lost a friend or loved one and feel like you never got real closure, this nostalgia may feel even more distressing.
Anticipatory nostalgia, or a longing for someone or something you haven’t yet lost, can also trigger anxiety and preemptive sadness.
You might notice this feeling during a romantic weekend with your partner or a casual day relaxing with your best friends. Despite enjoying yourself, you know every day can’t be the same and find yourself missing them well before they’re gone.
All that being said, nostalgia isn’t always negative. In fact, experts have associated it with several positive aspects of emotional well-being:
- A stronger, more positive self-identity. Your life experiences help shape your personality and define your sense of self. Looking back on the past can help you realize how you’ve grown over time.
- Life purpose. Thinking of important goals you have accomplished and important experiences can remind you that life has value and meaning — even if it didn’t turn out exactly how you predicted.
- Belonging and connection. Nostalgia may sometimes contribute to feelings of loneliness, but 2020 research also suggested it can help you feel more connected to others. Thinking of the people you love, for example, can help you remember just how much you treasure those relationships.
- Motivation and inspiration. Recalling “better” days could help motivate you to regain that contentment, inspiring you to work toward goals and improve circumstances you aren’t happy with.
Nostalgia could even inspire you to get help for depression.
The students who watched the nostalgic announcement reported experiencing more positive emotions afterward. They also showed more interest in reaching out to the counseling center to get support.
If looking back on the past leaves you feeling distressed in the future, these strategies can help.
Keep things in perspective
You might recall happy moments with your friends and think, “I’ll never feel so close to anyone again.” Or, when thinking of an apartment you loved, you might think, “I’ll never live in such a nice place again.”
Instead of letting the filtered past sway you, try probing your memories a little deeper for a more realistic picture.
Yes, you and your friends did have a lot of fun — doing things you don’t have much interest in now. Plus, when you really consider your bond, you realize it wasn’t nearly as strong as the ones you have now.
And, sure, that apartment was lovely, with great light and spacious rooms. Of course, you could hear every move your upstairs neighbors made, and your shower was almost never the right temperature (two problems you don’t have in your current apartment).
Taking time for mindfulness may benefit you when nostalgic thoughts provoke worry and rumination, drawing your mood into a downward spiral.
Mindfulness, or consciously focusing your awareness on the here and now, can help you remember that any negative feelings coming up are just passing thoughts, and they have no power over your life now.
You might recall your child’s first words and steps fondly, wishing you could still pick them up and cuddle with a bedtime story. When you find yourself mourning those long-ago moments, try reframing them. Instead, marvel at the fact that they can now read to you (and do so much more).
Sitting with your memories, and any thoughts they bring up, can also help you find deeper meaning in the past.
Instead of drawing comparisons between “now” and “then,” harnessing your nostalgia can help you cultivate gratitude for defining life events or people who truly changed your life.
Working toward greater mindfulness? Give these tips a try.
Seek out fulfilling relationships
When nostalgia leads to yearning for lost friends and loved ones, you can challenge feelings of loneliness by turning toward the important people in your present.
New relationships might not replace the bonds that mattered so much. They can, however, remind you that you do have love and companionship, and that others value you, just as you value them.
It’s also worth taking the chance to reach out to those people you miss most. Time changes nearly everyone, so you might find your friends, like you, have become entirely different people. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t reconnect and perhaps even find something new to share.
A mental health professional might not diagnose nostalgic depression, but they can offer support when nostalgia leads to lingering emotional distress.
Depression often affects your energy, not to mention your relationships with others. Connecting with a therapist is always a good idea when ruminating on thoughts of the past makes it difficult to thrive in the present.
Therapy can help when you notice:
- anxiety or frequent worries
- frequent rumination
- guilt or shame
- loss of motivation
- persistent sadness, hopelessness, or despair
- feelings of unworthiness or self-doubt
A therapist can offer guidance by helping you:
- recognize potential triggers for these feelings
- create strategies to counter rumination
- explore strategies to cope with nostalgia productively
- identify symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other underlying mental health concerns
Not sure where to start? Check out our guide to finding the right therapist.
Life only moves in one direction: forward.
Nostalgic musings can give rise to lingering sadness that takes hold, creating a roadblock that grounds you in the past. But they can also serve as a compass, guiding you to the future you desire.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.