As his ship passed by a lonely island, Odysseus heard beautiful voices singing a haunting melody. It was a melody that could lure even the most seasoned sailors to wreck their ships on the rocky shores, trapping them forever. Odysseus was warned about the dangers of the beautiful part-bird part-human Sirens and their magical song, but he was curious. Not wanting to be tempted away from his ship, he ordered his men to plug their ears with wax and tie him to the ship. The song pulled at Odysseus’s heartstrings, and he fought to free himself. He begged his men to untie him, but they stayed true to their word and kept him from losing himself to the Siren’s song.
His run-in with the Sirens was only one of many trials that the legendary Odysseus faced during his 10-year journey home. Pitted against gods, monsters, and men, the one thing that kept him going through temptation and danger was nostalgia for home and family.
Nostalgia, or the longing for the past, is part of the human condition. It was first observed in melancholy Swiss soldiers who were fighting far from home. A medical student named Johannes Hofer saw that these homesick soldiers suffered from heart palpitations, loss of appetite, and anxiety. This condition was often fatal, and the only cure was being sent home. Hofer called it Nostalgia, a combination of the word “Nostos” (Greek for “homecoming”) with “Algos” (Greek for “pain”).
In the past, nostalgia was considered a disease, but today we think of nostalgia much differently. Nostalgia is no longer merely homesickness. For most people, nostalgia is a mixture of pleasant memories and a sense of loss. Most people feel this bittersweet longing for the past at least once a week. And nearly half experience it three or four times a week.
Psychology professor, Dr. Constantine Sedikides says that nostalgia counteracts loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. That makes sense if you think about it. Nostalgic memories are often positive ones of friends and family. These memories give people a sense of belonging. And anxiety decreases when a person has more optimism and faith, which nostalgia has also been shown to provide.
While too much nostalgia can lead to depression, in moderation, nostalgia does seem beneficial. Perhaps most mysterious of all, nostalgia has been shown to make people feel physically warmer. Researchers in the Netherlands and China have done experiments where participants reported feeling warmer after listening to nostalgic music. So, the next time you are feeling cold or lonely, break out those CDs, cassettes or records from high school. It just might do you good.