I am prone to having periods of time where I feel quite nostalgic. Most of us experience this from time to time. It’s quite common around the holidays. I have felt it off and on for the past few days.
I am writing this article on November 30 which happens to be my mother’s birthday. She died a few years ago after several years of poor health. I’m not consciously aware of any nostalgic feelings that specifically relate to my mother – but you never know, there could be something subconscious going on there.
Thanksgiving was a couple of days ago. We hosted a family get-together at our house and I thought we all had a good time. Everything went well – the food was good, everyone was in good spirits, we played some games and talked a lot. I know I enjoyed the day, although it went by way too fast. That night after everyone had left, I felt a twinge of sadness that the day was over. There was all the effort and planning in preparation for this family time, the day itself rushed by and in the aftermath I was left feeling nostalgic not only for this Thanksgiving celebration but for all of the ones that had come before it.
A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I had another birthday. Mary had gone out of her way to make sure I enjoyed my birthday planning a number of celebratory activities – and I had a wonderful day! But birthdays can often serve as markers highlighting the passage of time and our aging process. Birthdays frequently initiate nostalgic feelings within me.
But I can get nostalgic at other times too. Not only events in life can bring about the emotion, but so can certain movies and even sweet laced TV commercials. But what good is nostalgia for? How does having such feelings serve you or I?
The term nostalgia was first coined to describe the feeling that certain homesick soldiers felt hundreds of years ago. It was originally considered a medical illness. Now we don’t consider nostalgia per se an illness although we do recognize that it sometimes leads a person into deeper depression.
Does nostalgia serve an evolutionary purpose?
Nostalgia had not been well studied by psychology until recently. What do recent studies show? Some findings reflect that feelings of nostalgia can raise body temperatures providing necessary warmth. Other studies show that nostalgia in certain circumstances can ward off feelings of loneliness and depression, create stronger feelings of affiliation and belongingness, increase our generosity towards others, help us deal with transitions in our life and help us see that our lives have meaning. Here’s a New York Times article which recently summarized much of this research. In addition, here’s a recent Psychology Today article on the topic.
One researcher frequently cited for his research on nostalgia is Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton. This summary from one of his recent research papers (click here to download a copy) highlights the importance that nostalgia serves:
“Regarded throughout centuries as a psychological ailment, nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength. It is part of the fabric of everyday life and serves at least four key psychological functions: it generates positive affect, elevates self-esteem, fosters social connectedness, and alleviates existential threat. By so doing, nostalgia can help to navigate successfully the vicissitudes of daily life. More generally, nostalgia is uniquely positioned to offer integrative insights across such areas of psychology as memory, emotion, the self, and relationships. Nostalgia has a long past and an exciting future.”
One of the recent trends in psychology is looking at our human traits through an evolutionary lens. What in our evolution as a species was served by our development of the feeling of nostalgia? How does such a feeling enhance our survival and reproduction? How were our ancestors more “fit” because they had these feelings?
Obviously, if feeling nostalgic raises our body temperature, then we are more likely to survive in cold environments. But more important are the psychological benefits. Individuals who feel better about themselves and their place in life feel more optimistic. Feelings of optimism tend to lead to outer success, certainly an evolutionary advantage. Individuals who are able to create higher levels of social connectedness with others can band together and create greater safety with their greater community numbers. In other words, the greater our ability of successfully living socially with others, the greater the likelihood we will live longer and reproduce more. Hence, the feeling of nostalgia certainly offers those humans with the ability to create it within their awareness greater social and evolutionary fitness.
Does nostalgia serve a spiritual evolutionary purpose?
The answer appears to be “yes” to this question as well. However, there are no specific scientific studies that I can point at – rather, we will have to go on intuition and logic here.
First, what do I mean by spiritual evolution? Briefly, this term relates to the cycle of our process of involution and evolution. Many mystics, spiritual teachers and the esoteric side of our major religions have described a process whereby the creative force (whether we call it God, spirit or anything else) which is in everything, created everything – embedding itself (or “involving” itself) into its creation. This force set the wheels in motion for the physical universe and all its “laws”. These laws included the process of evolution which has led to the emergence of life and the development of more complex forms. The ultimate goal of this evolutionary process as mystically intuited is for the creator’s creations who experience themselves as unique individuals with free will choice to ultimately “evolve” back to an awareness of their oneness.
Therefore, if we are evolving spiritually – and I believe obviously that we are – then what human factors would serve such evolution? Logic says that any characteristics or traits which lead us away from our sense of separation and towards our sense of unity will serve to move us along our spiritual evolutionary path.
Feelings of nostalgia that give us hope and optimism about the future can certainly contribute to this goal. Emotions that move us towards higher levels of social connectedness do as well. It’s often been said – by many others as well as myself – that love is an evolutionary force. Love draws us out of our sense of separation and towards our sense of unity. It turns out that our feelings of nostalgia can do the same.
In summary, as you move through your own feelings of nostalgia – be it caused by movies, birthdays, the holidays or whatever – I invite you to consider how those feelings are calling you to feel connected to something greater than yourself. In your awareness, you are connecting your past to your present leading to a transcendence of your experience of time. And, nostalgia is allowing you to feel beyond your sense of individuality towards a connectedness to other people leading to a transcendence of your experience of separation. Experienced in this light, your feelings of nostalgia can be seen as an internal force calling you home to that divine source which created you.
Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!