How to Deal With Nostalgia Productively

I know it’s a completely unoriginal move, but I’ve had a challenging 2020. And today, my brain sent me on a trip down memory lane.

I am nostalgic to a fault. I had a pretty magical childhood, and as life has gotten harder, I find myself longing for those days of yore. Reflecting on these memories is bittersweet—it’s fun and heart-warming, yet somewhat painful and crippling at the same time. I often wonder if my present and future can ever match up to my (romanticized) past.

Your past is significant in two possible ways. First, it can be a source of pain. You might have scars and injuries—physical or mental—as a result of what you’ve been through. Second, your past can be full of good, nostalgic memories. In either case, you can’t move forward now if your mind is stuck in the past. But that’s not a reason to ignore the past. Rather, I think we need to deal with our past in order to be able to move beyond it. Here’s how I dealt with my nostalgia.

Dealing with Nostalgia

Tonight, I opened up my laptop and starting documenting the nostalgic assault on my mind. I began listing fond memories akin to Charlie’s “Greatest Hits” on the TV Show LOST (one of my favorite episodes from my favorite show ever). Here are a few:

  • Throwing the football with dad back when I was destined to become an NFL Wide Receiver.
  • Making board games with my cousin David.
  • Family gatherings at my late grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • Travel memories of Hawaii and Europe, solo and with friends.
  • Swim team memories, high school memories, college memories.

I won’t list them all. Some of them are even embarrassing or strange to be held in such high esteem (video games?). But hey, the mind/heart loves what it loves.

If you get the nostalgia bug often, I recommend writing your feelings and memories down for two reasons. 

  1. To remember and reference them. Now you can revisit your memories whenever feeling nostalgic for a more efficient nostalgia session. And when you’re 99 years old, you can read the stories as if they’re brand new.
  2. They show you the highlights of your yesteryear, giving you a possible roadmap for your present and future.

When I feel nostalgic, it’s often a vague yearning for fuzzy fragments of things I’ve experienced before. It’s like the scent of the ocean, a snapshot moment with friends, and that first bite of pizza in one feeling. Writing down all of the memories my brain associates with these feelings helped me to “scratch the itch” faster and with greater satisfaction.

More interesting than that, writing down my nostalgic thoughts exposed my current lifestyle. To put it another way, will your current lifestyle and trajectory create more of these memories? If not, you may need to adjust your lifestyle to give yourself a better chance of creating new memories that you’ll love.

Everyone experiences nostalgia from time to time, but if you experience it very frequently, deeply, and emotionally, it might mean that your current life isn’t where you want it. That may not be in your control (virus), but it gives you clarity on what you need to aim for next.

Look for Nostalgic Themes

I noticed some themes in my nostalgic memories. Most of my fondest memories involved 4 key factors…

  1. People (friends/family)
  2. Adventure
  3. Games
  4. A sense of freedom

There were some odd nostalgic memories on my list. One of them was playing a Nintendo 3DS video game in a quiet building at UNC Charlotte where I graduated. It’s one of my favorite games (Dragon Quest: Monsters Joker). I alternated homework and playing the game, which gave me a sense of freedom and possibility about my future. I was working on schoolwork (career/future), but also having so much fun playing this game. That’s why this pretty insignificant moment felt so significant and stuck with me. Making progress while having fun feels great!

In your own nostalgic list, you may find odd moments like this that you’re particularly fond of without an obvious reason. Dig deeper to find out why they appeal to you, and you can find some nuggets about what you cherish.

In conclusion, the best way to deal with nostalgic thoughts is to start writing them down. You can build a “best hits” list to carry with you through life. There will be lessons to reflect on and ideas for future pursuits. Give it a try!

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