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Doctors once considered yearning for the good old days a psychiatric disorder that caused insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Reminiscing about better times, even in moderation, was thought to be unhealthy. But recent studies have focused on the positive aspects of nostalgia and shown that it can be therapeutic in a number of situations.
When you're down:

"You can use nostalgia to give yourself a boost," says Tim Wildschut, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Southampton in England whose research has shown that indulging in a little reminiscence makes people feel less lonely and more inspired. "Happy memories let you take a break from negativity," he says. "As one of our participants put it, nostalgia is a holiday in your mind."

When you're caring for someone with memory loss:

In Alzheimer's patients, triggering nostalgia with familiar songs or old photos can revive the sense of self that's slowly siphoned by dementia, even if the memories themselves stay fuzzy. Nostalgia helps us keep track of who we are, says Krystine Batcho, PhD, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, New York.

When you're facing serious issues:

In one study of Wildschut's, published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were asked to write about their own death. Those who had just engaged in a nostalgic reverie were less morbid than others who had not. And, according to Batcho's research, nostalgic types are more able to use their knowledge of past accomplishments as a guide through difficult times. "It's a little like driving," she says. "Looking in the rearview mirror helps you get your bearings."

Of course, neither of these experts advocates living in the past. The idea is to enjoy a nostalgic moment when you're feeling blue or overwhelmed. If looking back doesn't come naturally—and it doesn't to some people, especially those who had unhappy childhoods—you might try actively searching for a bright occasion from your life. Given that even Holocaust survivors and war refugees have benefited from nostalgia in therapy, gaining an enhanced sense of self from it, Batcho believes everyone has a piece of positive history to draw strength from.

How to boost your spirits—even in these crazy times

From the May 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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