You are strolling through the flea market on a Sunday afternoon and you spy something from the corner of your eye. It is a toy china tea cup. It looks just like the one you had as part of your tea set as a little girl. For a moment you are transported back in time, to a happier time, when childhood games and toys could bring you joy. Of course you have to buy the tea cup. It is a tangible reminder of a happy memory. Can memorabilia make you feel happy? Speaking from my personal experience I would say yes but with a few caveats or exceptions. In this post we are going to explore the reasons why so many of us are attracted to nostalgia and how our sentimentality may be good for our mental health.
My theory about sentimentality is that as we grow older we have more memories tucked away in the corners of our mind. Some are good memories and some are bad. For the person suffering from depression, the bad memories can seem to overshadow happier times. When we do discover a pleasant memory through some tangible association such as an old toy, photograph, or object, we want to hold onto it to recapture that feeling we once had. There are tons of venues for people who wish to rediscover their more pleasant memories with on-line websites dedicated to anything from 80’s nostalgia, to retro candy , as well as classic toys from your childhood. Sites like eBay cater to the sentimentalist where you can find pretty much anything you want to find including the Sears original Pong system from 1975 (remember this game?) or a talking Mrs. Beasley doll (from the TV classic Family Affair) in its original box. There are also print magazines which take us back in time such as Reminisce or Nostalgia magazine which is full of reader stories and photos from earlier decades. And of course there are flea markets, antique stores, and vintage clothing stores to satisfy our need to rediscover the past.
So what is this need in us to see or possess old stuff?
I can only speak from my experience but for me, collecting items from my childhood is a way to make my ghostly images and hazy memories come to life. I have very few photos from my childhood as my mother and I were poor and she had little money or time for taking pictures. Yet the few photos I do have show objects which were important to me. I see an old Casper mask from Halloween, a plastic santa and reindeer which sat on our mantel each holiday, old games like Uncle Wiggly and Which Witch, and a Roly Poly Chime ball with boats in it. I have just begun to collect some of these old toys and I can tell you that it is a very strange and bittersweet experience. The magic and spark are still there"¦ but oh so briefly. Then you remember that you can never go back.
There is also some sense of regaining what was lost. My mother and I had to move a lot when I was a child. There were even times when I was homeless and had to live in a shelter or with relatives. My things were usually left behind. I had no time to collect them. Seeing these objects from my childhood revives the spirit of that little girl who is still inside me. I give her a bit of joy in seeing those lost toys once more.
Perhaps the most joy is gained by sharing the stories behind the objects to others including family. I can tell my children what it was like for me to be a girl as hard as that is for them to imagine.
Is nostalgia good for our mental health?
There are studies to confirm that sentimentality or nostalgia may be good for our mood. An Arizona University State study concluded that nostalgic products provide a means to which people can socially connect and feel a sense of belonging. In addition, the University of Southampton in England has created a Nostalgia Project where feelings of nostalgia are being researched. Tim Wildschut, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Southampton, reports that nostalgia can give you a boost in mood. A little indulgence in reminiscing can ease loneliness and gives one a break from negative thinking. Dr. Clay Routledge, also a researcher involved in the nostalgia project, has published an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which suggests that nostalgia increases an individual’s self esteem. His research also shows that when we engage in nostalgic activities, we tend to feel that our life is more meaningful. Nostalgia is a bridge from the past to the present which can make us feel more whole.
Is nostalgia ever detrimental to our mental health?
It is my opinion that thinking about the past can be a healthy indulgence unless it becomes an obsession or compulsion. If you are constantly comparing your present to your past in an unfavorable way then you aren’t really living in the now. We can never go back in time. We can remember it and relive memories but we can never truly bring back those earlier times. In many ways we must let go of the past in order to grow and move forward.
Then too there are people who become so obsessed with collecting items from their past that they become hoarders. In a previous post for our anxiety site I wrote about a series on the A&E network called Hoarders. In one of their many episodes we meet a man named Randy who wishes to recreate his youth by collecting vintage amusement/boardwalk items such as pinball and arcade games. His enormous collection of such items can be found in RandyLand which holds thousands of pinball machines, antiques, and props including 200 life-sized replicas of his younger self. Randy Senna says that he is a collector and not a hoarder but you can be the judge.
The reason for Randy’s collection? He wanted to capture those feelings of his youth. He was picked on as a kid and the boardwalk games and amusements of his home town gave him solace. While Randy has room to store his objects of nostalgia, others do not and some people’s "collections" become a detriment to their physical safety (objects which are piled so high in the home that they are a fire hazard) and to their emotional well being (their objects consume all their time so that they cannot work or have relationships).
As with all things a little balance goes a long way. Revisiting a happy memory by holding onto your old doll or hotwheels car collection can enhance your mood and provide a good story to share with your children or grandchildren. But just a little nostalgia goes a long way. It is like a little sprinkle of pixi-dust. You don’t want to over-dose on the stuff or it isn’t special anymore. So go ahead, bring out your first Nintendo game system and play some old school pixilated Zelda with your kids. And don’t forget to tell them that you made do with only four channels on the TV set. Their wide eyed stare of astonishment on how you made it through your childhood without a remote control will ensure your awesomeness for years to come.