Need to find your motivation? Turn up the nostalgia

According to research, the feel-good glow of nostalgia is enough to give you a boost of motivation.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re reliving the ‘90s.

The Spice Girls are making headlines, a trailer for The Lion King remake just dropped, and clothing stores are suddenly flooded with tie-dye t-shirts. Confusing as it would be for a time-traveler, the effect is oddly soothing.


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At a time when things seem terrifyingly uncertain, nostalgia feels like an easy escape. It’s like a vacation without having to deal with flight delays and visa concerns.

But according to studies, the benefits of reminiscing may go a little deeper. Remembering the good times of the past—say, by jamming to the Jonas Brothers’ comeback song—may actually inspire optimism for the present and future.

What’s important, clinical psychologist Wayne Pernell, Ph.D. tells Shine, is the way in which you engage with the past. “A sense of longing for what was has been shown not to enhance wellbeing, especially in older adults,” Pernell explains. “(But) when older adults are encouraged to recount the good things that happened in their lives, a renewed sense of wellbeing ensues. When we reflect on the positive, we relive it, as if it is the present.”

Hearing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” for example, might bring back old memories of watching the OG Lion King with your family, or of a time when your biggest concern was getting the right color Gushers.

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“The mind processes everything as current,” Pernell says. “It’s why we cringe when we relive the ‘should-have’ moments that were so painful. It’s also why we smile so big when we hear the song or smell the smells of yesterday or a few decades ago.”

One reason for this is because happy memories increase production of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which in turn can make you feel better in the moment—and more optimistic for the future. “We feel good and we look forward to the future with a new sense of vitality,” Pernell says. “In a sense, we’ve reset a clock in our minds.”

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So, how does it all tie back to getting stuff done?

According to research, the feel-good glow of nostalgia is enough to give you a boost of motivation. In a series of 2013 studies, researchers had participants write about positive events in their past and engage with nostalgic music. As compared to control groups, those who re-experienced the past expressed more optimism and higher self-esteem.

“Our findings have shown that nostalgia does have the capacity to facilitate perceptions of a more positive future,” explained study author Dr. Wildschut. “Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future. Our findings do imply that nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity.”

Rather than a sign of regression, reflecting on the past can actually help improve the present and the future. The key, Pernell says, is to remember that the present and future can be just as great as the past.

“Harnessing the feelings of ‘those were the days’ can be brought to the present to create the sense of ‘these are the days, too!’,” he says.

The next time you feel stuck, grab a piece of paper and start describing a fun past experience. Remembering the good that came before can inspire you to seek out more good, and reflect on how future-you might look back at what you’re doing now.

Maybe listening to old music inspires you to write a song or story of your own. Or perhaps reminiscing about a road trip motivates you to finally put in for some vacation time.

“The good news is that for most people, reminiscing is just that. No one really gets sucked back into living in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. We touch the feelings and may bring a touchstone or souvenir with us to remind us of the feelings, but we’re not stuck living there,” Pernell says. “So reflect, reminisce, and enjoy. That feel-good feeling is worth carrying forward and might just allow you to enjoy today a little more.”

This article originally appeared on Shine—a daily self-care & meditation app that feels like a pep talk in your pocket. Join 3 million people who start their weekdays with Shine’s motivational message. Plus: Get support with audio challenges developed by self-care experts. After using Shine, 96% of people saw a decrease in anxiety & depression.


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