The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


A song might instantly transport you back to an old love affair. Perhaps looking through photographs brings not just wonder—look at that wallpaper! I was so thin!—but also sorrow for lost connections and faded hopes. The pleasures of reminiscing are both warm and melancholic, and often called bittersweet.

Less than a hundred years ago, however, nostalgic reverie could actually kill you.

In 1688 a medical student named Johannes Hofer wrote a treatise on a mysterious disease that had broken out among Swiss mercenary soldiers fighting abroad. It began with the soldiers being distracted by thoughts of home—often, wrote Hofer, brought on by hearing cowbells chiming in the distance. Then it would progress to lethargy and sadness, “frequent sighs” and “disturbed sleep.” Strange physical symptoms followed—lesions, heart palpitations, and from there a “stupidity of mind”—a kind of dementia. Some soldiers died of the illness, wasting away from a refusal to eat. Others attempted to return home—the only known cure—and were executed for desertion. Hofer invented a new word to describe the disease, nostalgia—from the Greek nostos (a homecoming or return) algos (pain). By the nineteenth century, nostalgia had become one of the most studied medical conditions in Europe, and the last person to be diagnosed and die from the disease was an American soldier fighting in France in 1918 (see also: HOMESICKNESS).

In the early twentieth century the meaning of nostalgia began to drift, connected not so much to sickening for home but with yearning for things past. Today, nostalgic reveries are wistful but rapturous travels in time, to smells and songs and images that send us spinning off down rabbit holes into our former lives. Too much nostalgia can leave you stuck between a dissatisfying present and an alluringly unavailable past (see: REGRET). But often making a sudden connection with a long-lost memory creates welcome feelings of belonging, identity and continuity. As Virginia Woolf put it in To the Lighthouse, these involuntary glimpses of how things used to be bring a “coherence in things, a stability” that shines through the chaos of our lives like a precious jewel.*

A surprising number of psychological studies have recently emphasized the benefits of indulging in nostalgic reflection, suggesting it increases our sense of existential meaning and social connectedness. Psychologist Clay Routledge has even proposed “nostalgia workouts,” such as reading old letters or making a list of cherished memories, to combat ANXIETY, LONELINESS and rootlessness. Our surroundings and physical sensations can help. Olfactory recall is the most powerful and immediate—neurologists say this is because odors pass directly from our nostrils to the limbic system, where our emotions and memory reside. A team of researchers in southern China have even noticed that nostalgic feelings are more common in colder weather, arguing that reminiscing may serve an evolutionary purpose by raising our body temperature—it is, quite literally, heartwarming.

From deadly disease to health-giving pastime in less than a century: nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.