Memory believes before knowing remembers.
– William Faulkner, Nobel Prize-winning American novelist and short story writer, from Light in August
For several months after my mother passed away in the early morning of January 3, 2012, I listened to popular songs from the 1970s on Pandora Radio into the night. I was fully cognizant of what I was doing; I was taking myself back to a time when I was in elementary school and high school, and my parents – though my dad was 55 years old when I was born – were younger, healthier, and full of life. I have a soft spot for many songs from the 70s, but whether I truly liked some of them when they first came out was moot; listening to all of them during that difficult time generated a physical sensation akin to a runner’s high. Priceless few brought me back to near-exact moments in time – running in between the rows of my father’s vegetable garden trying to catch elusive butterflies and helping my mother make lumpia, though my rolls resembled stuffed cigars close to falling apart while hers were tightly wrapped and uniform in size.
I went on the Internet and Googled Louis Prima and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, thankful for technology that enabled me to pull up at a moment’s notice a YouTube video of my mother’s favorite instrumentalists. On those February nights, I was transported to Sunday afternoons in the summer when my mom and friends and relatives played rummy or mahjong, while I suffered as the hostess, serving cold drinks and offering waxy Hostess donuts and pastries at the appointed time. My uncles and aunts would tip me, telling me what a good daughter I was. I couldn’t wait to finish serving and escape to the living room to read my Nancy Drew books, but looking back, the sounds of their laughter, the coins being tossed, the mahjong tiles clicking across the tablecloth were soothing in the cocoon that was my childhood world.
It was of great interest to me, then, a year and a half later, when I read a New York Times article published on July 8th that was shared by my good friend’s daughter on Facebook. “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows” tackles the centuries-old perception that nostalgia is a disorder or a waste of time. Dr. Constantine Sedikides pioneered the study of nostalgia and produced such tools as the Southampton Nostalgia Scale. Sedikides noted that nostalgia makes us “a bit more human.” Researchers have found that “nostalgizing” helps people feel better and makes “life seem more meaningful and death less threatening.”
Not surprisingly, researchers in the Netherlands found that listening to songs is one of the easiest ways to induce nostalgia and create a physical sensation of warmth. It’s universal that people are transported instantly to a season or often a moment in time when they hear a song from their past. It connects them to that memory. Recent studies also show that people who nostalgize more frequently develop a “healthier sense of self-continuity.” Through his Experimental Existential Social Psychology Lab out of North Dakota State University, Dr. Clay Routledge found that nostalgia “serves a crucial existential function.” The ability to bring forth “cherished experiences” helps to validate that “we are valued people who have meaningful lives.” Interestingly, his research revealed that people who nostalgize on a regular basis “are better at coping with concerns about death.” Of course, the reason I listened to those songs from the ’70s was to find a time and secure a happy memory of my mother that would supplant the last memory I had of her when she took her last breath – after my two sisters and I endured an hour-and-a-half vigil of watching what seemed like her last breath several times over.
Dr. Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England, discovered that nostalgia helps people deal with transitions, which explains why younger people and older people tend to nostalgize at higher levels than people in middle age. It seems to me, however, that in middle age – or the sandwich age, as it’s been coined – we are dealing with just as many transitions – our children growing up and moving out while our parents are growing frailer and some are moving back in with us. It seems to be our current social landscape.
Revisiting the past and concluding that the present can never be as good as the past is a defeatist and destructive form of nostalgia. Revisiting the past to escape the present and future, and being mired in the past is also a waste of one’s time and energy. Rather, we should call forth cherished memories with those we love and have lost, and be grateful to have experienced those times. Somehow it brings us close to them during moments when we feel lost, ungrounded, and empty. The added gift is being able to draw on those memories instantly, by playing the song whenever we want and need it. We can feel the healing power of nostalgia again and again.