Every once in a while, I have this strange and magical feeling when I am reminded of certain things. Oftentimes I cannot even remember what it is that I’m longing for. I don’t know exactly what it signifies, but my feeling is that it is a sense of nostalgia.
Below I shall share my thoughts about this curious phenomena, as well as the knowledge I’ve accumulated about the emotion we call nostalgia, emphasizing how it relates to sleep and dreams.
What does the word “nostalgia” mean?
Nost-algia = Nostos + Algos
Nostos in Ancient Greek literature refers to a hero’s journey of homecoming.
For example, an important theme in the Odyssey by Homer would be Odysseus’ homecoming.
Algos means “pain,” and in plural the word is “Algea.”
So nostalgia literally means “homecoming pain.”
It’s interesting to note that this word is relatively new.
The word “nostalgia” was created only about 400 years ago ina Swiss medical student, who was looking for a way to describe his mercenary patients’ anxiety related to being away from home.
Nowadays, when we use this word, we usually look to describe a positive feeling of longing, and not an anxiety.
This makes me wonder how did people refer to this feeling before the word “nostalgia” entered our lexicon.
What is the feeling of nostalgia?
According to Wikipedia, it “is a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
As you can tell, the concept went through a transformation through the years.
From signifying a negative state of anxiety, we know understand nostalgia as longing for things which made us happy in the past.
Dictionary.com adds another important element to the definition of the feeling of nostalgia by defining the word as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.”
The word “Wistful” adds a sense of melancholy, which slightly reconnects the definition of nostalgia to it’s original meaning. Both anxiety and melancholy can be seen as negative emotions. However, melancholy is more related to depression than anxiety.
Before we tackle the question of whether nostalgia is positive or negative, let’s understand how this feeling is evoked.
What evokes the feeling of nostalgia?
In the original “nostalgia disease,” the feeling was induced by a dangerous situation, while being far from home.
The nostalgia normal people feel can sometimes be a very faint feeling, which is induced by being reminded of the past. The reminder could be meeting a person you once knew or visiting a place you used to frequent.
More often, a much more subtle sensation or perception, such as a certain smell, taste, sight, touch, sound, music and even the weather, can make one nostalgic.
A stronger feeling of nostalgia will usually result if the specific sensation or perception was not experienced since it was first associated with the memory.
For me, the trigger is sometimes so vague that I can’t even put a finger on what it was exactly.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning feeling nostalgic. Therefore, the trigger for nostalgia can also occur in altered states of consciousness, and not only in waking life.
Some people believe that nostalgia occurs when one is not happy with one’s current circumstance. According to this theory, nostalgia is a sort of defense mechanism that causes one to derive joy from times when one was satisfied.
What is good about nostalgia?
I suppose that the question to this answer is very subjective. It depends on what memories are recalled and whether or not they are associated with positive emotions.
Some of the benefits of nostalgia would be:
- It may improve one’s mood.
- It can provide a sense of meaning in life.
- Nostalgia that is related to social memories may increase one’s feeling of connectedness with others.
- It may help feel better about oneself, and even cope with uncomfortable situations.
- It promotes psychological and spiritual development.
- It’s comforting.
All these benefits can be summarized as following:
Nostalgia deepens and injects meaning into your experience of the present, thereby empowering you in many aspects of your life – socially, psychologically and spiritually.
Another important advantage of nostalgia would be that it may indicate that something is missing in your life. Generally, when people are content, they enjoy the present and do not think about the past.
Can nostalgia also be negative?
When nostalgia is mild, like it is for most people, and does not involve a mental illness, such as depression, melancholy or anxiety, it may still have some negative aspects.
Nostalgia can also be a cover up or a defense mechanism which serves as a buffer between your conscious awareness and traumatic or negative memories.
Another way nostalgia can act as a defense mechanism would be if it arises when one is not happy with current circumstances. To remain happy, the mind starts reliving the more joyous past.
Defense mechanisms can hinder your ability to become a fully realized human being. Just like children use training wheels until they are capable of balancing themselves on their bicycles, adults needs to know when to let go of their defense mechanisms and face reality.
But even for normal people for whom nostalgia is purely positive, there may be a problem.
Well, to be healthy, one must live in the present. It’s easy to get carried away, especially when your present situation is not ideal, and start reminiscing and indulging in past memories. When it becomes habitual, perhaps even obsessive-compulsive, I’d say it can be highly counterproductive to the process of self-realization.
Sure, you do need to learn from the past. But there’s a huge difference between making a decision to do something like you used to do it in the past because it made you feel great, then constantly reliving those good times, while not changing anything in the present.
What is the opposite of nostalgia?
The opposite of nostalgia can be a sense of indifference and not caring about the past at all, perhaps not even remembering it.
Alternatively, it can be longing for the future rather than for the past.
German Romanticism coined a term which can also be considered as an opposite of nostalgia: far-sickness or longing to be far away from home. This feeling is also known as wanderlust, a desire for travelling and exploring the world.
Except for the longing for the future, which is as bad as dwelling on the past, I’d say that the two other opposites I came up with are much healthier options than nostalgia.
The first alternative is simply to ignore the past. Even positive memories should not interfere with one’s being in the present.
Normal wanderlust is not ideal, but it has a psychological counterpart: an urge to develop oneself and experience the unknown. I believe it’s impossible to take up the challenges of spiritual self-development without having at least a slight psychological wanderlust.
Nostalgia and Sleep
The main way Nostalgia relates to sleep would be by interfering with one’s ability to fall asleep. In severe cases, people may become so obsessed with past memories to the point where it is very difficult for them to fall asleep due to overthinking.
Sometimes this obsession will give rise to a compulsion to engage in things that remind of the past, causing one to get out of bed and wasting precious sleep hours.
When nostalgic feelings are associated with anxiety or depression, the problem becomes much more serious, and may cause full-blown insomnia, or an inability to fall asleep.
In less serious cases, the quality of one’s sleep may become compromised due to stress, obsessive thinking, depression and anxiety.
Interestingly, the connection between nostalgia and sleeplessness works in an opposite way as well. When some people are sleep deprived, they experience an increase in feeling nostalgic.
Of course, as I’ve explained in the “What is good about nostalgia” section above, nostalgia can have the opposite effect of reducing stress and promoting a feeling of well-being which may help one fall asleep faster and improve one’s sleep quality.
Nostalgia and Dreams
Nostalgia may have a part in determining what you dream about. After all, most dreams are made of memories.
There are two ways this connection between nostalgia and dreams may manifest.
- Nostalgic memories may arise and influence what appears in your dreams.
- What appears in your dreams may give rise to nostalgic memories.
Some people report having bad dreams, even nightmares, associated with nostalgia.
Others have positive, warm nostalgic dreams.
If the emotion of nostalgia appears in your dream, it may suggest that something that is hidden in your past is trying to resurface. It could be a repressed memory or feeling. This would especially (but not necessarily) be the case when the dream is perceived as negative.
Alternatively, it could indicate that there’s something lacking in your present life and to realize what it is, the dream points out how things were different in the past. This should give you a clue as to what you need to change in order to make your life better.
In more general terms, dreams of nostalgia are a bridge between your past and present. The details of this connection are idiosyncratic.
A good way to begin interpreting nostalgic dreams would be to ask yourself: What am I longing for? And how does it make me feel? Do I feel happy? Sad? Melancholic? Depressed? Anxious? If the emotion is not positive, then the next step would be to ask yourself: What can I do in the present to relieve this emotion? How do I need to modify my life?
If the emotion is positive, then enjoy it! Ask yourself what lesson you can learn from this feeling. What is the lesson this dream is trying to teach you?
As I discussed in great detail above, nostalgia has both positive and negative aspects. I like to think about nostalgia as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, there is nostalgia as a mental disease, which involves depression, intense homesickness and anxiety, then it softens up a bit and becomes just a slight melancholy. And in the other end, it is a positive, happy and warm feeling associated with good memories, which empower and sooth one’s experience in many ways.
Eventually, one who walks the path of self-realization would need to give up on nostalgia with the power of psychological, even spiritual wanderlust, and venture to become rooted in the present moment, with total indifference to the past and future.
Until then, one should strive to use nostalgia in a productive way as much as possible, and to avoid letting it take over your waking life or to disturb your sleep.
Don’t forget that the present of today is the nostalgia of the future…