Do you often go back in time and remember different experiences and memories? Or you may find yourself focusing more on the future, imagining how you will achieve a goal, or just thinking about what your life could look like.
“I think people kind of go back from the past to the future, like in a time machine,” says existential psychologist Clay Routledge, vice president of research and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute. This “human ability to mentally travel through time” intrigued Routledge and inspired numerous research studies. According to science, mentally looking back in time – and into the future, where we can imagine our future selves – can be beneficial in many ways.
Nostalgia as a coping tool
For a while, it was hard to escape the belief that “there’s something wrong with people being stuck in the past,” says Routledge. This notion stems from the origins of nostalgia itself. As he continues, a Swiss physician in the late 17th century began to notice homesick soldiers experiencing symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and nausea. Because of this, the term nostalgia was born to represent what this doctor believed to be a real neurological disease, says Routledge.
While people began to move away from this medical view of nostalgia, there was still a negative association with it for centuries afterward, Routledge explains. Then, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, marketing research showed that people want to revisit certain memories, as evidenced by the considerable amount of money people spent on products that did just that. This “time travel” to the past did not make them unhappy; instead, it did the opposite, says Routledge.
Maybe there’s a scent that reminds you of your ffavorite season, and when you light a candle with this scent, it will instantly put a smile on your face. Or it may exist old song that when you play it, you suddenly feel comforted. According to a study published in 2006 in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology“Nostalgia strengthens social bonds, increases positive self-esteem, and creates positive affect.”
Researchers such as Routledge have found that nostalgia can even be used as coping mechanism help reinforce a negative mood or keep loneliness at bay. In fact, scientists have even discovered that it exists an increase in the number of older songs played on Spotify during the initial wave of pandemic lockdowns, according to a study published in the journal SSRN in 2020.
About a decade ago, more research revealed that nostalgia can also serve as a motivational tool, Routledge says. He explains that when research participants wrote about a sad memory or a difficult time in their lives, more often than not, the exercise helped them move into a more hopeful state where they were able to find meaning in their lives.
“When we’re worried about the future, the uncertainty of the future — or the certainty — we can turn to the past as a way to be like, ‘I’ve had a good life, I’ve had meaningful experiences. And you know, that’s kind of comforting,'” says Routledge.
Look into the future
Before researching nostalgia, Routledge actually looked to the future first, considering how people often embrace projects that may not yield immediate results. For example, earning a college degree can take many stressful years. Yet humans have the ability to “project” into the future and imagine that we will achieve a goal that will propel us through that adversity, Routledge says.
Similarly, Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, examines “how human behavior can be changed by bringing people closer to their future selves,” according to a press release. IN 2018 study in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Hershfield and others tasked participants with writing a letter to themselves in 20 years. Despite the small sample size, those who wrote the letter actually exercised more later. And when people they actually saw their future selvesusing virtual reality technology, they were more likely to make decisions that would be valuable to their future selves, such as saving for retirement.
Still according to the same Press Release, brain imaging from another study shows that we tend to view our future selves as strangers, which can influence our current choices. Simply put, by doing things to connect more with our future selves, such as writing a letter, you have a chance to become more aware of how the decisions you make today can have a long-term impact on your life.
At the very least, writing letters to your future self can be helpful during stressful times. AND study 2021 in Journal of Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being found that this exercise has helped many with anxiety during the pandemic because it allows us to broaden our perspective and “see things in a new light in moments of despair.”
Stay in the present
While this “ability to mentally time travel” has obvious benefits, it doesn’t mean we should be so nostalgic or stuck in the future that it robs us of the present. As the good old saying goes: Everything in moderation. Routledge states how exercise is important to our overall health, but excessive exercise can lead to injuries that limit your ability to do other things. It’s the same with nostalgia, he says.
However, research shows that if you’re feeling sad, anxious, or lonely, playing that old song, looking at old photos, or reminiscing about old times—both good and bad—can help you feel better and find meaning. Even better, you can cook a meal that your grandmother used to make, or create a notebook or journal, allowing you to actively understand certain experiences and memories – and even share them with others.
Additionally, taking a few minutes to write a letter to your future self can be helpful. You might be more motivated to do something that your future self will thank you for or that your younger self would be proud of. You may simply feel better at the moment. And there’s no time like the present, right?