The Nostalgia Machine

Have you ever felt in one of those lonely, sad, or just funky moods when a pop song suddenly brought back memories, and evoked a wistful wave of joy? Recently, for me, it was the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” that took me right back to those days of being fearlessly creative in the face of the fire coming at me…

And then Southside Johnny’s “We’re Having a Party” had me back a few decades, dancing in carefree, intoxicating love with my then-girlfriend (now wife for 32 years) Dana…

We all have a reservoir of nostalgic memories that, when triggered, transform our mood and inspire us to think about the special times and people from our past.

Welcome to the Nostalgia Machine. Visit the link, and just click a year from your childhood or adolescence (from 1960 on) to access a list of popular music videos. The tunes can bring you back to your high school parties, late-night “brilliant” bull sessions in your dorm after partaking in mind-enhancing substances, cherished crazy times with close friends or loved ones, important rituals like weddings, births, family reunions or graduations – or perhaps a specific moment of youthful idealism and hopefulness when you thought you’d conquer the world.

There’s actually a name for this phenomenon: a “reminiscence bump.” It’s a sudden bump in our ability to remember with great clarity and fondness what happened during key, critical youthful years. Nostalgia is actually an adaptive skill, enabling us to recall happy events from our past and to maintain a sense of continuity of identity over time; painful events tend to become dimmer as we reshape our own narratives in a way that enhances how we feel about ourselves now.

Obviously, longing for the past at the cost of the present, or clinging to the past (for fear that life can’t ever be as good as it once was), is an exercise in futility. We can’t literally go back to those good old times. But nostalgia can be a sacred resource we dip into, to conjure up the evidence we need to assure ourselves that everything is okay. That “Wow,” “Yeah,” OMG, smile-laugh-bittersweet yearning can be a source of wisdom.

Next time you find yourself in a wave of nostalgia, enjoy it. Feel grateful for your past. Then shift the feeling of nostalgia and let it bolster your identity, and guide you in the present.

Ask yourself: With what mind are you viewing the past? With what heart are you experiencing it? If you discover you long to return to those times, take a closer look. Is there someone you need to reconnect to? Is there a dream you need to reclaim, or a zeitgeist from that era that you need to tap into? What’s happening in your life right now that you may be feeling nostalgic about five years from now?

Doing this, you get to see that the past served its purpose, and you’ll know that there’s so much more of great value yet to be experienced. Yes, the present – the Now – is all there is, but the paradox is that remembering the good times (where we’ve been) and imagining the future (where we’re going) helps us create the power of now.


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