Nostalgia has long been demonised as an emotion for the senile, akin to moping, says James Marriott in The Times. Its “painful-joyful ambiguity” is hard to categorise or defend. What is it telling us? “Go back? You can’t. And if you could, would you want to?”
But recent psychological research shows it is fundamental to the human sense of meaning – a crucial factor in wellbeing associated with a lower risk of death. Nostalgia lifts the spirits of the lonely through a sense of “belonging and affiliation”. Wordsworth spoke of “spots of time” that nourish and repair our minds.
“We are a species that moves in time,” says Marriott. “It is our tragedy and our privilege that we know this (as animals can’t)”. Of all the emotions, it is perhaps the most characteristically human. It is laments for lost time, not love affairs, that fill poetry anthologies. Nothing illustrates the importance of nostalgia like art. Philip Larkin once wrote: “I am always trying to ‘preserve’ things by getting other people to read what I have written, and feel what I felt.”
“The present, in which we are so frequently advised to live, is fleeting and trivial,” says Marriott. “Our pasts are richer, more filled with lessons and associations and meaning. We should spend more time there.”
The chemical rush of the runner’s high
“Few feelings rival that post-run glow,” says Sam Murphy in Runner’s World. The “sweaty mingling of satisfaction, joy, calmness and clarity” is a big reason we all do it. No sensible ancient human would have wasted 500 calories running five miles for kicks, but our ancestors occasionally needed to do so for survival. So our brains came up with ways to make the experience palatable. The mood-boosting substances in its “chemical cocktail cabinet” include endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine and serotonin.
The runner’s high usually lasts between 20 minutes and two hours, and is best triggered by moderate prolonged activity rather than short, sharp bursts – which fits with the long-range stalking of prey practised by hunter-gatherers. Regular runners are most likely to get it; they may even get “little surges of ‘anticipatory’ chemical joy” while lacing up their shoes. Exercise can also help those quitting drugs to stay on track: the runner’s high functions as a healthy replacement for their addictions. The only downside for keen runners is that we get a bit grumpy when we can’t go running. “OK, very grumpy.”