Nostalgia: The Science Behind Why It Feels So Good, and Why You Need to Leave it Behind

Watching the sunset in HP40 in 2010

If you’re anything like me you are a creature of habit. My brain is constantly seeking things that it knows are good, or great even. I will choose the same restaurant, dish, movie, drink, person, place, or event that is tried and true. In an effort to keep all moments of my life something that I know will be fantastic. It’s a coping mechanism, and it isn’t healthy. In recent years, I’ve been better at branching out and trying new things. Call it less anxiety, more opportunities, exploration/adventure, leaving my comfort zone, facing fear, overcoming obstacles….call it…happiness?

Murren, Switzerland 2018

I distinctly remember getting back home from a run sometime mid-February 2020 and speaking the words, “I have never been happier”.

A couple of years ago I was introduced to the idea of the Human Design, and learned that I am a Manifestor. After some deep thinking about my own life and history, I realized that I have almost always had the innate ability to attract what I want with few words or actions. What I didn’t realize, until recently, is that this power means I have to be really freaking careful what I allow my mindset to be, that I need to choose my words carefully, and be aware of what energy I put out into the world. When I am happy and energized every opportunity approaches me, and when I am feeling unhappy and un-motivated the feeling is powerful enough to seemingly stop every opportunity in it’s tracks.

I realize that the world does not revolve around me. However, in recent years, I think many are becoming aware of how mindset, combined with positive action, can easily yield success. It’s human nature to feel nervous that we will lose our happiness and success once it’s achieved. Sometimes you can trick the universe for a minute by donning your best poker face and not “jinxing” things. When actually, the real key to happiness, which I tend to forget in moments of bliss or fear, is to not think too much about anything at all. The advice I’ve absorbed in recent months is to not let fear hold me back from true happiness, but I realize that this is only valid to a point because ultimately the universe, world, and happiness does not exist solely for me, or you. It’s common for coaches to tell you to work through blocks you have around achieving happiness. However, I am reminding myself that the true key to being happy is to appreciate each moment for what it is, and nothing more or less than that. Realistically, we can not be happy if we’re constantly craving more or better.

Ollantaytambo, Peru 2013

Buddhism teaches that the key to being happy is treating experiences as they are, rather than how you want them to be, and detaching oneself from the cycle of craving. As humans when things are good, we crave more of the same. We hold on too tightly and it feels THAT much worse when things change. When things are bad, we crave for the situation to improve. Then when things get worse, we can’t handle it. The idea is to achieve happiness by accepting each moment, as it is rather than craving for it to be something it isn’t.

I forgot my own advice, and let myself crave each day to be happier than the last. I got greedy. “How good can I make it? Don’t let your past fears block you from having and being everything you’ve ever wanted”. Then, on March 12th, 2020… It became clear that things were not going to be getting better. So like many people did, I fought it. I tried to hold on to my business, employees, morning runs with my neighbor, climbing gym seshes, date nights, and my favorite local businesses serving coffee, food, and drinks. I tried to do what I could to create positivity and manifest my happiness and keep things good. I tried to make things as good as I knew they could be. My brain said, “go do all the things you know are good, and for as long as you are allowed do them”.

Monterrey Bay, California 2015

On the day I realized I had to shut down my service business out of an abundance of caution, I had one last fight at holding on to my happiness. I tried to be out and about shopping and delivering groceries to my neighbors. I tried to continue hiking with a friend and having socially distanced happy hours outside. The moment I finally realized I needed to give in to this pause, was the moment I turned up the music. Day after day I would wake up, sit on the couch with my coffee and turn on Spotify, or music videos on YouTube. Not just any music or videos, but ones that made me SUPER NOSTALGIC for any past memory. Ones that reminded me of travel, my youth climbing team & competitions, high school & college, our wedding and honeymoon.

Music holds such a powerful, and emotional place in my heart & soul. While many babies first songs were likely PG nursery rhymes mine were most certainly a mix of The Beatles, classic rock, & punk from the 70’s. I spent summer days and nights at music festivals, often times backstage with my dad. My childhood was not quiet and the radio was always on. I was always allowed to blast music from my boom box to my hearts content, and many nights I would fall asleep with headphones on my ears, and the same CD on repeat in my Walkman. I found myself longing for that evening in the 90’s where my dad’s band opened for Cheap Trick at the Metro and my mom sat me on top of a trash bin with a lid so I could see better. I remember getting beer “thrown” at me. I was up past my bedtime. I was cranky and SO mad. At the time I never thought I would look back on it as one of the best, and coolest, memories. This is just an example of why nostalgia feels so good. Nostalgia can allow us to go back and re-live even what we viewed as a negative experience in a positive light. It’s also why it’s not okay to dwell on the past.

Our Honeymoon, Oahu, 2015

About a week into my musical trip down memory lane, my husband asked if I was getting stuck. He said he was worried I was stuck in a nostalgic vortex of sorts. I knew what I was doing. My brain was searching for sounds, tastes (hello, childhood snacks), and memories that reminded me of better times than what we’re all experiencing right now. Of good feelings of summer, fun, friends, laughter, love, & life. It felt so good to be there, reliving things. I even started looking through old photos, videos, and reaching out to old friends in an attempt to be social and reconnect (from a distance). He didn’t judge me for being there or try to make me stop, but pointed out that I should try not to get stuck.

I cant be the only one who has been enjoying a beer or glass of wine or two, each evening these days. A couple of nights ago I started noticing that I was not just stuck, but super glued to the feeling of getting slightly intoxicated and strolling memory lane. After all, WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO in this time of isolation and quarantine?

That is when I googled, “Why Does Nostalgia Feel So Good?”.

Rocky Mountain National Park, 2014

The answer lies in science. Our brains crave good memories. Especially when we fear that there are not going to be good experiences with which to create new memories in the future. It’s true that we can get extremely stuck in nostalgia, especially when our life is on hold or experiencing a state of pause. Nostalgia can help us deal with stress and anxiety. We tend to see the past through rose colored glasses. We generally remember things better than they really were, but sometimes the days we look back at a day as the best of our lives, were days we may not have known to appreciate fully in the moment. That is why nostalgia feels so damn good.

Then, I read the most alarming thing. The reason I turned off the music, close the photo albums, and put down my glass. Please note: I realize I typically only post about travel, and navigating entrepreneurship while traveling. The reason I’m writing this blog in hopes that I can help even one person. I actually wrote this a week prior to posting, and debated whether or not to share something so personal. I ultimately decided that this might be really helpful for someone. It is worth the reminder. Cravings that you cant get enough of, are called addictions. Nostalgia, is a drug. In fact, nostalgia is so addicting that it can lead to substance abuse issues, and substance abuse can cause states of nostalgic bliss, and visa versa.

Are you currently abandoning everything you know to be healthy and wise? Are you focusing more on what was, and what could be in the future, rather than forcing yourself to experience the brutal reality of the here and now? If any of this resonates with you, I urge you to pull yourself away. The problem with nostalgia or day dreaming of the future, is that you are not creating new memories! So, naturally, as humans we are nostalgic when we fear that we will not experience better things in the future. Now, I absolutely realize that being stuck inside and not being allowed to get out and make new memories is a crippling feeling right now. It is okay to let your brain find some refuge in memories and dreams, but it is not okay to get stuck there.

Machu Picchu, 2013

While scrolling for tips on happiness, I remembered what I’d learned while dabbling in what it would mean to become a Buddhist. We have a lot to learn, in this time of self isolation, from the simplistic and non-materialistic lives of Monks seeking zen and enlightenment. I found 12 daily reminders that may help you find peace during this time where we can not easily make new and profound memories. As someone who doesn’t get bored, and craves excitement – It is a good reminder for me that we can not achieve enlightenment and pure happiness by craving more, or clinging to what once was. The following list is from an post by Leo Babauta from zenhabits.net:

12 Essential Rules to Live More Like A Zen Monk”:

1. Do one thing at a time.

2. Do it slowly and deliberately.

3. Do it completely.

4. Do less.

5. Put space between things.

6. Develop rituals.

7. Designate time for certain things.

8. Devote time to sitting.

9. Smile and serve others.

10. Make cleaning and cooking become meditation.

11. Think about what is necessary.

12. Live simply.

Ten Sleep, Wyoming 2011

After weeks of grieving for what was and what could have been, I’ve settled on taking this time to JUST BE or if you must, create simple new memories, in a safe and responsible way. Do not be hard on yourself right now. If you find yourself out of work, or feeling the pressure to “do”, create, or re-invent yourself, try instead to focus on your daily tasks, and do them well and deliberately. Rather than fearing that you’re not doing enough, let yourself find peace in simplicity and break from this pressure to create new memories or reshape your future. Rather than attempting to come out of this pandemic “ahead” of others, turn inward and notice ways in which you can work on being content with what is in this moment (especially since this wont be the last pandemic) while understanding that It’s natural to crave excitement, and better days right now.

And, by all means, if you need to hustle right now just to survive this, I completely understand. I urge you to reach out for financial and emotional support as there are many paying it forward right now. Personally, I am going to take this time to pause and enjoy just being here in this moment right now. Maybe, just maybe, focus on finding your inner Zen right now, and you might just come out of this pandemic slightly closer to enlightenment. That can’t be so bad.

Koh Tao, Thailand 2012

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