COLLECTIBLES GIVE US SOME DEGREE OF COMFORT IN AN OTHERWISE TOPSY-TURVY WORLD
By Stacey Colino • Illustration by Andy Hirsch
In difficult times, it’s natural for people to gravitate toward sources of comfort and reminders of happier days.
That’s why people have been hunkered down, watching classic movies while sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why we’ve been adopting puppies at record rates, getting in touch with old friends, or digging out favorite photo albums or record collections from the past. There’s no mystery about the appeal of these activities: They provide a sense of comfort and security, a break from the current stress and uncertainty, and a way to mentally travel back to a more pleasant time.
“From a psychological perspective, when we look to the past, we connect not just to the period of time but to our former self and how we felt emotionally during that time,” explains clinical psychologist Valentina Stoycheva, co-founder and director of STEPS (Stress & Trauma Evaluation and Psychological Services) in New York. In other words, our desire to engage in nostalgic activities — whether it’s re-reading favorite books or spending time with a cherished collection of coins, sports cards or first-edition books — creates a bridge from our present to our past. The collectibles themselves serve as transitional objects: “They’re the vehicle that takes us to a more comfortable affective state,” says Stoycheva, author of The Unconscious: Theory, Research and Clinical Implications.
“Because the items we save serve as parts of our past that we choose to take with us as we move forward, they help us reflect on the extent to which we have changed or remained the same over time,” adds Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College at Syracuse who has been studying nostalgia for 25 years. “And they give us an opportunity to explore our priorities and examine whether our current priorities still represent how we want to live.” In fact, research in the June 2020 issue of Frontiers in Psychology suggests that by involving reflection on past experiences, nostalgia can motivate attitudes, behavior and goals that improve people’s lives in the future.
Moreover, nostalgic activities remind us that we have some degree of control in a world that feels topsy-turvy or mired in unpredictability. Because “the future is uncertain, but the past is known, engaging in nostalgic activities can help ease stress, anxiety and sadness by restoring the comfort of the familiar,” Batcho explains. “Enjoying [these nostalgic activities] reconnects a person to their authentic, core self during stressful times.”
While negative emotional states – such as sadness, loneliness or a sense of meaninglessness – may trigger a desire for a trip down memory lane, nostalgia in turn can enhance feelings of well-being, social connectedness, and a greater sense of meaning in life. Research also has found that nostalgia can relieve boredom and loneliness, bolster motivation and self-esteem, and even help people overcome relationship challenges.
What’s more, spending time with a collection and reminiscing, either aloud or in your head, about the experiences that allowed you to amass those treasured items, can provide a sense of order and stability in difficult times. This sense of anchoring can in turn bolster your outlook for the future. A study in a 2019 issue of the journal Cognition & Emotion found that savoring a previous experience in your mind creates nostalgic memories that foster optimism for the future.
APPRECIATING THE PAST
Granted, engaging in nostalgic activities won’t repair what’s missing or wrong in your life — but it can inspire you to make changes that will improve your life. The key is engaging in nostalgia in healthy ways that allow you to appreciate the past while staying involved in the present. To strike that balance, when the desire to engage in nostalgic activities kicks in, ask yourself: What feeling am I craving? What state of mind am I trying to reach? How is this helping me cope with what’s happening now? If you handle it this way, waxing nostalgic can lead to greater self-understanding. “Nostalgic activities are useful,” Stoycheva says, “as long as you’re not in denial and not using them as a means of avoiding reality.”
Strike the right balance between focusing on the past, the present and the future, as well as getting nostalgic on your own and with others, and you’ll be putting nostalgia to good use in your life. Hopefully, “nostalgic reverie leads us to rediscover the best parts of our present and view them in a more positive light,” Batcho says, so we can “combine the best of the past with the best of the present to fashion an even better future.”
When it comes to nostalgia, that’s the sweet spot.
STACEY COLINO is an award-winning writer based in Maryland whose work has appeared in Parade, Newsweek, Good Housekeeping and Prevention.
This article appears in the Winter 2020-2021 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.