Both neuralgia and nostalgia share the same Greek word particle for “pain.” Neuralgia is a condition referring to nerve pain—not to be desired. Nostalgia refers to bittersweet feelings concerned with our memories of “home” or the times of our lives already lived.
While the painful emotional impact of nostalgia can be grief for good things gone by, nostalgia can also be a comfort as we re-visit or come home to important markers in our lives. Willing ears and a little encouragement can make nostalgia an important piece in the experience of aging well
On one hand, longing for “the good old days” can produce an experience of loneliness as so many persons and places become only memories as time passes. Being caught up in the past can take up valuable emotional energy that keeps us from embracing the present. Worst of all, holding too tightly to our mental versions of how much better things used to be, from root beer to teenagers, can alienate us from those who would greatly benefit from our understanding and encouragement in the present.
One the other hand, nostalgia can bring enormous pleasure as something in the present triggers delightful times and memories from the past that our brains have groomed to include mostly positive aspects. This can begin when the amygdala, the emotional center of our brain, is triggered by sensory experiences. Some years ago, my hometown library presented programs for older adults built on this pleasant form of nostalgia. The “kits” we used in our programs included pictures, music and even scratch and sniff products centered around themes such as the Fourth of July, gardening, clothing, farming, letter writing, weddings, children, baseball, and destinations. One of my favorite (and nostalgic) memories was of a big band theme that included bringing in willing spouses and friends as dance partners for participants who wanted to dance. I remember one of the participants saying to me that he had not danced in thirty years. He remembered it all once the music began.
The way we choose to remember and interpret the days of our lives is our power to tell our own story, first to ourselves, and then perhaps to others who may want to know. Life review catches us by surprise sometimes when a nostalgic moment happens.