The Super Power You've Always Had: Old Photos, Family Memories, and that Mix Tape of 80's Classics

By: Wayne Gannaway, Executive Director

Research on nostalgia suggests that reminiscing is not just pleasurable, it’s also good for you.

This is a special time of the year. A time for meeting friends and family over egg nog and reminiscing. Most of us look back fondly on holiday memories. Perhaps we recall shopping for presents with mom at Dayton’s or EA Knowlton’s or of taking the family on an enchanted Christmas tour of Mayowood. Sometimes a TV show, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or hearing Bing Crosby will transports our imagination into the past. It turns out, those moments of nostalgia are not mere sentimentality.

Through dozens of research studies, Dr. Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University, along with other social scientists, have found that nostalgia is an important psychological resource, “that helps individuals cope with life’s stressors, build strong relationships, find and maintain meaning in life, and become more creative and inspired” (Harvard Business Review, April 2021). Of course, we all have memories we’d rather forget—let’s face it, not every family gathering is fit for a Hallmark moment. But Routledge says that nostalgia “tends to follow a redemptive sequence in which negative feelings such as longing and loss give way to positive feelings such as happiness, social connectedness, gratitude, and hope. In other words, nostalgia is bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter.”

There are a lot of reasons that the holiday season is a time of generosity and helping others. Religious teachings and tradition are just two. But nostalgia may have something to do with that as well. A 2012 article in the Journal of Consumer Research theorizes “(1) nostalgia promotes charitable intentions and behavior, and (2) this effect is mediated by empathy with the charity’s beneficiaries.” If you’ve read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” recently, you know that the dyspeptic Ebenezer Scrooge had to engage in nostalgia to regain his sense of empathy (not to mention avoiding an eternal fate of floating around a sooty, dreary London whilst adorned in iron chains).

So what do we do with this realization? First, we in the history community need to remind ourselves and others that the impact from one’s interactions with history (be it paging through a family photo album or going through an exhibit at the History Center) is not trivial, but can have a real positive value, as social science shows. And most of us have access to those memories, even if we don’t have the family scrapbook or heirloom. But having historic photos (like those from our archives that we post on social media), artifacts (such as our IBM machines—even the punch cards—at the History Center), or historic places (like the Ear-of-Corn tower or the Downtown Commercial Historic District) are the touchstones that trigger good feelings, social connectedness. Frankly, as a supporter of history, you intuitively always understood the value in memory, the past, and history. Now, dispassionate social scientists are proving it through their research of nostalgia.

Here at the History Center, we see lots of examples of this. I recently spoke with a Rochester resident whose memories were triggered after seeing our IBM System 3 display. As a young man working in Britain, where he’s originally from, he recalled cradling giant stacks of punch cards as he shuttled them from one part of the factory to another. As he recounted this I could almost sense him breaking out in a cold sweat because, he said, if he dropped the hundreds of collated punch cards as he traversed the factory floor he’d have to gather them up and put them in the exact same order. But such misfortune never befell him. By reminiscing he may remind himself that he persevered in that job and probably many others since. Perhaps his nostalgia also provided him an opportunity to be thankful that technology has become more user-friendly since the days of the punch card.


As a historian, I was trained to be skeptical of nostalgia, that history is always more complicated than we imagine. Dr. Krystine Batcho of LeMoyne College makes a distinction between personal nostalgia, for example, reminiscing about that awesome summer in 1991, and historical nostalgia, where one has an “emotional attachment to or longing for times in history that predate their own birth.” That type of nostalgia should always be paired with a healthy dose of historical context. (Find the interview with Dr. Batcho here.)

So dig out that high school year book and pop in the holiday mix tape (is that Bruce Springsteen, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" I hear?), and indulge in nostalgia.