Nostalgia is Good For You

You know what nostalgia is, right? It’s a type of reminiscence which includes a wistful affection or longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.  At one time, nostalgia was considered a psychological disorder, a longing for one’s past that occurred because the present was unpleasant or untenable. Some psychologists even felt that nostalgia was a sign of depression.

Fortunately, that view of nostalgia has been debunked.  In the late 1990’s Dr. Constantine Sedikides pioneered the field of nostalgia research and after almost two decades of study, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – it’s a lot better.

Multiple research studies have indicated that nostalgia counteracts loneliness, boredom and anxiety.  It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.  Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing pleasant memories.  And, on cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer!

Nostalgia makes us a bit more human. Studies have shown that the definitive  features of nostalgia are the same the world over The topics are universal – reminiscences about family and friends, holidays, weddings, births, gatherings, happy times.  The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends, colleagues or family members.

Nostalgia can diminish sadness and loneliness. In one study, people read about a deadly disaster which elicited feelings of sadness.  Other subjects were chosen because they expressed considerable loneliness.  It was found that sad or lonely people are more likely to wax nostalgic and the strategy works: they subsequently felt less depressed and lonely.

Nostalgic stories aren’t simply exercises in cheerfulness.  The happy memories are often mixed with a wistful sense of loss.  But, on the whole, the positive elements outnumber the negative.  Nostalgic stories often start with some kind of problem or adversity then they tend to move towards a happy ending, thanks to help from friends or family.  So, nostalgia fosters a stronger feeling of belonging and affiliation and you become more generous toward others.

A quick and effective way to induce nostalgia is through music.  A study conducted in the Netherlands, noted that listening to music made people feel not only nostalgic but also warmer physically.  Other studies have found that feelings of nostalgia are more common on cold days. Subjects in a cool room were more likely to become nostalgic than people in warmer rooms and those who became nostalgic reported feeling warmer.

Nostalgia may help us ward off despair. In a study conducted in England, subjects read an essay by a supposed philosopher who wrote that life is meaningless and each person’s contribution is paltry pathetic and pointless.  It was found that when subjects were induced to nostalgia before reading the bleak essay, they were less likely to be convinced by it.  “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” says the researcher.  “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”

For Dr. Sedikides, the pioneer of nostalgia research, the lesson to be learned from this new awareness of the value of nostalgia is that we all should create more moments that will be memorable. “I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgia-to-be memories,” he says. He suggests that we experience nostagia as a prized possession.

Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. 

It made me feel good about myself and my relationships.

It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.

Dr. Constantine Sedikides

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Write Your Life Story Even If No One Will Read It

Sometimes participants in my Life Story workshops have asked me if it’s worth documenting one’s memoir if there are no friends or family members who will read it. My answer is a resounding YES it is definitely of value.

Across the years, many workshop participants have commented on the unexpected benefits to themselves personally as a result of their life story writing efforts. They have noted that long forgotten memories come rushing out as one memory triggers another. Some workshop participants have mentioned a greater sense of the richness of one’s life as they work to capture it’s essence. Others have noticed that a new or expanded understanding of people or life events evolves in the course of writing.

It’s not surprising to me, therefore, that many psychologists and researchers are noticing that writing a memoir, even just for one’s own consumption, can help us make sense of our lives, deal with difficult events and foster personal growth.

Several studies have shown that writing about traumatic or difficult events can reduce stress, lessen depression and improve cognitive and immune system functions. Some researchers believe that by converting emotions and images into words, we start to organize and structure memories, particularly memories that may be difficult to comprehend and accept. Through writing, the memory of the experience can be broken down into small parts, allowing the event to be less overwhelming and more easily processed,

When writing about past traumas or difficulties, the people who gain the most from the experience are those who tend to acknowledge their own challenges while also seeing other people’s points of view. Over the course of writing, their general perspective about the events tends to evolve which can result in new connections and understandings. It’s probably no surprise that researchers have noted that life narratives are especially beneficial if they focus on redemption and overcoming adversity.

Writing about life experiences can also help us to re-evaluate what we have learned from living and how we might want to live the rest of our lives.

Of course, there are also potential risks. Writing to uncover a deeper meaning in one’s life requires honesty or authenticity, which could occasionally cast us in a negative light or resurrect long buried feelings of resentment or melancholy. Researchers suggest if the experience causes increasing anger or bitterness, it is best to stop.

We must recognize that there is a difference between writing a memoir for one’s self and writing it for an audience. When writing for family and friends, we may be tempted to omit details or even change the story. In some ways, the memoir written just for one’s self may be more honest and complete. That said, it must be acknowledged that sharing a memoir in limited circles can be therapeutic, especially if it is a receptive audience. Sharing will help friends and family understand who we are and the life journey that has shaped us.

In essence, writing our own life story is an exercise of self-discovery and self-affirmation. It also provides a valuable record of one person’s journey through a particular time in history. It provides evidence that that one’s existence has been worthwhile and even memorable. So, whether you do it for family and friends, or just for yourself, it is a highly worthwhile endeavor.

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The George Bailey Effect

One of the things I appreciate about the Christmas season is how conducive it is to grateful reflection. It is a time to think about those people who are most important in our lives – family, friends, neighbors and colleagues – and to be thankful for so many things.

At this time of year, we might also be reminded of an interesting approach to gratitude through a technique dubbed the “George Bailey Effect.” The activity is named after George Bailey, the lead character in the classic seasonal movie, It’s a Beautiful Life.

 In the film, George Bailey has come to a point where he feels that life is no longer worth living. As he contemplates suicide, an angel enters his life and convinces him otherwise. The angel asks George to imagine what the world would have been like had George never been born. Through this process, George realizes that what he thought was a pitiful life was, in fact, a wonderful life. He returns to his family a changed and wiser man.

The George Bailey Effect technique is based on the idea that by mentally undoing positive events from our lives, we initially experience a bit of sadness but also realize that these positive people, events and experiences do, in fact, exist and we appreciate them all the more. It creates a thankfulness for ordinary and mundane parts of our lives that we often take for granted.

Implementing it can be simple. Pick a person, place or event from your life that gives you joy and satisfaction. Write down some things that may have prevented it from happening. Then, as vividly as possible, imagine what your life would have been like had that person, place or event never been part of it.

In one study of the George Bailey effect, couples wrote about ways in which their lives would have been different if they had never met their spouse. This exercise had a greater impact on their happiness than when they reflected on what they really appreciated about their husband or wife.

Doing this exercise regularly can contribute to it becoming an habitual way that we process things, creating a greater sense of gratitude and appreciation for those things that may otherwise feel mundane or insignificant.


Do yourself a favor and give the George Bailey technique a try. It could be the best gift you give yourself this holiday season.

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A Splendid Example of Life Story Writing

I recently read the lovely book, “Ru” by Kim Thuy.  Published in 2009, this book has won a number of awards including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Ru, in Vietnamese, means lullaby, to lull.  In French, it is a small stream and, figuratively a flow, a discharge – of tears, of blood, of money.  A fitting title for a book that documents the flow of an extraordinary life.  In short exquisite vignettes, Thuy takes us along on her journey from her palatial home in Saigon to a crowded refugee camp and onward to  her new life in Canada.  As an adult, her journey includes motherhood and the challenge of learning to shape her love around her younger son’s autism.

Thuy’s short narratives move back and forth from past to present and back again.  I am amazed how this author, in just 141 pages, manages to transmit her story so clearly and beautifully.  She writes with delicacy and wisdom about a childhood marked by horrifying brutality as well as about the pleasures of ordinary life in our peaceful country.

Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival, put this book forward for Canada Reads 2015.  In defending the book, Bailey said: “This is one of the millions of stories of migration in this country, the story of a woman migrating from Vietnam to Canada. . .It is harrowing, beautiful and has compressed, perfect writing.  This is the story of the future of Canada.”

Ru is a book that is well worth reading, especially for those of us involved in personal history writing.  Both in terms of its content and style, it offers some wonderfully thought-provoking ideas.

If you haven’t heard of this small autobiographical novel, or even if you have, please consider putting it on your reading list.

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A Grateful Heart is a Healthy Heart

Robert Emmons, PhD. is one of the leading researchers and writers on the topic of gratitude.  In his interesting book “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier” (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) Emmons includes a chapter entitled “The Embodiment of Gratitude”.  He mentions several studies that support his contention that gratitude, like other emotions, is embodied, i.e. it is expressed  physically as well as emotionally.

Emmons mentions an intriguing study that examined people who had suffered heart attacks.  The study showed that the explanation a person has for why he or she has experienced a heart attack has serious implications for future cardiac health.  These researchers asked patients to rate the degree to which various factors were responsible for their heart problems and whether or not they perceived any possible benefits, gains, or advantages from their illness.  The study found that patients who blamed their heart attacks on others were more likely to suffer another heart attack within the next eight years.  Those who perceived benefits and gains from an initial heart attack, including becoming more appreciative of life, had a reduced risk for subsequent heart attacks.

We have known for some time that emotions affect our physical health.  Considerable  research has shown that people who are anger-prone are nearly three times more likely to have a heart attack than those who are calmer.  Since the practice of gratitude drives away toxic emotions such as resentment, anger and bitterness, it is not surprising that it is associated with better heart health.

Other studies have indicated that as much as seventy-five percent of longevity is related to psychological and behavioural factors.  For example, chronic negative emotions (e.g. depression and pessimism) are linked with shorter life spans. Those who expect a bleak future often create that very expectation. Being optimistic and thankful seems to have the opposite effect.  A study conducted at the famous Mayo Clinic found evidence that pessimists have a shorter life span than their more optimistic counterparts.  In fact, in this study, people who scored high on optimism had a fifty percent lower risk of premature death – including death from heart incidents – than those who scored most strongly on pessimism.

A thankful, optimistic view of life, not only contributes to a happier life, it also contributes to a longer and healthier one. A lovely quote from Emmons’ book (p. 89) sums it up beautifully:

For millennia, the heart has been viewed as the primary source of the spirit, the seat of the emotions, and the window to the soul.  Virtually all cultures around the world use the word ‘heart’ to describe anything that is core, central, or foundational.  Whoever gave us the French proverb ‘gratitude is the memory of the heart’ may have known something that experimental research is now able to verity: gratitude is the way the heart remembers.”

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Family Bonds and Belonging: It’s Not All Relative

What is a family?  Does family consist only of those people to whom we are related by blood?  Or, do we chose our family?  Do we have more than one family?  Who are the people who’ve had the the greatest influence on our lives?  To whom are we most closely bonded?

These are questions that often arise when we are involved in life story writing.

A recent ad for an interesting new exhibition at the Royal British Columbia Museum is certainly compelling in relation to these questions. This exhibition, which opens in June, promises to “challenge conventional ideas of family and shows how family can be defined by blood, choice, community or place.” The exhibition will take us on a “journey exploring the joy and pain of bonds and belonging.”  As well, it will offer valuable suggestions for tools that will help those of us who want to dig into our own family history.

Family Bonds and Belonging: It’s Not All Relative runs from June 2nd to October 31, 2017 at the Royal B.C. Museum.  Tickets can be purchased at: www.RBCM.CA/FAMILY.

See you there!

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Life Story Writing: A Path to Forgiveness

We set out to write our life stories mainly because we want to capture aspects of our lives to hand down to those who come after us. We want to leave a legacy for family and friends, a worthy goal, for sure. Once we start this process however, we often discover that it has many other unexpected, often positive, outcomes.

As we recall and document aspects of our lives we may learn things about ourselves that we hadn’t realized before.  Perhaps it’s just a realization that we’ve lead an interesting life or perhaps we begin to see that we have overcome considerable adversity and have become stronger as a result.

 Most of us undertake life story writing later in life following years of experiences, growth, and learning. Many would suggest that this life experience brings considerable wisdom, one aspect of which is a burgeoning ability to understand and forgive.

 As we reflect back on our lives we are seeing situations from the perspective of an older, more mature point of view. Think of yourself as an adolescent or young adult. Consider how you saw the world at that time. Looking back, do you see that world the same way now?

Through the lens of time and age, we can often understand better the actions of others, even those for whom we have felt resentment and anger. The adolescent girl who resented her mother’s critical and controlling behavior may now have a better understanding of the forces that were influencing her mother’s choices and actions. Perhaps, this will allow that daughter to have a gentler focus which can allow for forgiveness.

Why is this important? Considerable research indicates that toxic emotions, such as resentment and bitterness, cause actual physical harm to our bodies. As hard as it may be to truly forgive, it is good for our emotional and physical health to do so. 

 In this month’s issue of Chatelaine magazine, the importance of forgiveness is explored. There is some great advice for the festive season in the article – Three Words to Live by this Holiday Season: Let. It. Go. 

If our life story writing brings us to a level of understanding that allows for try forgiveness, it has given us a special gift indeed.  Particularly so during this season of gifting, wouldn’t you say?




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Transitions – Events that Change our Lives

This past summer I found myself immersed in what can only be termed a major life transition. My husband and I moved out of the home in which we had lived for 34 years. This move marked the culmination of a 3-year transitional journey. The months that turned into years of waiting for our big old house to sell, followed by the uncertainty of finding a new home in the midst of a crazy, escalating real estate market were stressful in the extreme. Once we found a new home, we were immersed in the arduous task of sorting, purging and packing the mountains of belongings we’d accumulated over 34 years. Then, there was the move itself which could only be described as grueling. Nevertheless, we survived. As the weeks go by and we gradually become accustomed to our new home, we realize that we seem to be thriving in our current surroundings. We are happily meeting our new neighbors and enjoying the advantages of our new neighborhood. The move has opened us up to novel experiences, brought new people into our lives, given us a fresh perspective.

Our move could be viewed as a life changing event in that it has clearly taken our lives in new directions. These transitional events happen to all of us as we traverse the vicissitudes of life. Whether it’s a move; a marriage or divorce; graduation; birth of a child; a medical crisis; getting or losing a job; death of a loved one or some other meaningful life experience, these events are milestones in the plot of our lives. They are the events that punctuate our storyline such that we later refer to life “before” and “after” these occurrences.

Geriatric researcher, James E. Birren refers to these life changing transitional events as “branching points” . He has this to say about these experiences:

A branching point may feel like an ending and then turns out to be the beginning of something new. This is what a life transition is – the loss of something known, a period of adjustment, and finally a focusing on a new direction.” (James E. Birren, 2001).

 Birren has suggested that, when we are writing our life stories, we should focus on these life changing transitions, mine them for what they gave us, what we learned, how we coped, how our lives were changed. He even suggests that we might use these transitional events as markers on the journey of our lives. In this way, they could provide the organizing elements for our life stories.

When you are writing your life stories, consider some of the fortunate transitional events in your life. Examples might include graduating from school, getting a job you wanted, marrying the love of your life, winning a prize or award. As you write, describe each event and how you felt about it at the time. How did it change your life? Even positive change events entail an element of loss. What did you lose and what did you gain from this event? What did you learn about yourself as a result of this event?

Sometimes, it’s the less than happy events in our lives that are most dramatic. We often learn the most and find our strengths during our more difficult times. Therefore, as a part of your life story writing, it is valuable to consider some of the unfortunate transitional events in your life. Examples might include school failure, job loss, divorce, medical crises, death of relatives or friends. As you write, describe each event and how it affected you at the time. How did it change your life? Were there any positive outcomes that resulted from this event? What did you learn about yourself?

Transitions are part of all or our lives. These events often mark the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another. As you write your life stories, don’t forget these important, often emotional, transitional life changing episodes. They will add color and drama to your narrative as well as helping to delineate the forces that made you the unique person you have become.


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Our Lives and Our Stories Matter

This weekend, an article by Paul Willcocks appeared in my local newspaper. The article was titled “Our Lives and Our Stories Matter”. It is so appropriate to the discussions I am often having with workshop participants and speaks once again to the importance of us making time to capture our important life stories.Have a look:

Our Lives and Our Stories Matter

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Life Story Writing

This week, I am starting my third Life Story workshop through Continuing Studies at the University of Victoria. What a pleasure it has been for me to facilitate these workshops. I have met such interesting people and heard some astonishing and heartfelt stories.

As I was preparing for this next workshop, I came upon the following quote which I feel is so appropriate.

“Be playful, try to enjoy the process of writing, and don’t underestimate the value of what you have to say. Write as you speak – conversationally. Don’t let yourself get discouraged and never give up. You can’t be too young (Anne Frank was 13) nor too old (author Sadie Delang was 109) to create a treasure for yourself, your family and for many generations to come.” -Nanette Stone

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