• Nostalgia is a familiar feeling, but there are actually two different types—reflective and restorative nostalgia.
  • Restorative nostalgia involves happy memories and associations with the past. When we feel restoratively nostalgic, we’re likely to feel motivated to seek out new and rewarding experiences.
  • Conversely, reflective nostalgia may often make us feel gloomy and disappointed, making it seem that the present moment doesn’t compare with our memories, preventing us from moving forward and making new positive experiences.
  • Though they might sound like polar opposites, both types of nostalgia can be empowering experiences, if we learn to harness their emotional power. 
  • Feeling reflectively nostalgic can be counteracted by remembering that the present moment holds hope for us—we can make new friends, happy memories, or achieve success with a positive mindset.
  • Feeling restoratively nostalgic is a special sensation, one that we can treasure while still remembering that the grass always appears greener on the other side.

Has an old photo, song, or smell ever resurfaced and brought distant memories surging back to you? The psychological rush of remembering days gone by has a bittersweet quality, one that can be difficult to express. We’ve all felt nostalgic, but we may not be as familiar with the two types of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. While restorative nostalgia makes us feel positive about our past and motivates us to seek out new possibilities and experiences, reflective nostalgia often leaves us upset and wistful, thinking that our best days are behind us.

When we feel positive about memories from our past, studies indicate that our brains are rewarding or even bribing us into seeking out positive experiences in order to keep the good vibes flowing. In contrast, feelings of reflective nostalgia cause us to shut ourselves off to new possibilities; in this state of mind, we might actually be susceptible to developing depression or anxiety. Despite the drastically different ways that restorative and reflective nostalgia affect us, psychologists now know that our ability to recall past events isn’t very accurate. Most memories, good or bad (and especially those attached to strong emotions), are almost always distorted in some way. 

But as long as we don’t turn our backs on the present moment, or give up on the future, there’s nothing wrong with taking a restoratively nostalgic walk down memory lane. In fact, it could help set us up for success in our personal lives and prompt us to continually form healthy habits and relationships. The only thing to remember? The view in hindsight, whatever we see, isn’t real. 

Reflective vs. Restorative Nostalgia 

Reflective nostalgia was first described in the 17th century when Swiss physician Dr. Johannes Hofer noted that soldiers who were stationed abroad would often long for their home country, experiencing a dejectedness that sometimes resulted in near depressive-like symptoms. Though not clearly understood at that time, the profound emotional effect of their memories could not be mistaken. 

When the past is viewed through the lens of reflective nostalgia, we’re typically closed off to the possibility of change and are reflecting back on old memories in order to seek refuge. We don’t see potential in the present moment because we’re overtaken by how much we miss the past. It’s common to feel reflectively nostalgic when:

  • Going through a breakup, divorce, or loss of a friendship
  • Grieving the death of a loved one
  • Experiencing failure, personally or professionally 
  • Struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions 

When the past is analyzed with rose-tinted glasses, we miss the whole picture. We forget the toiling, frustration, and dissonance involved with many of our memories, which can feel blissful in an illusory way. People may feel restoratively nostalgic when: 

  • Celebrating an anniversary in a relationship, or getting together during the holidays
  • They wish to ignore certain aspects of the past
  • Achieving success in their personal or professional lives 

Regardless of whether you’re experiencing reflective or restorative nostalgia, it’s important to recognize and harness the emotional power of these unique psychological experiences. You can clear the haze associated with memory distortions from your train of thought by taking a moment to recognize how you feel about the memory in question. 

How to Cope with Reflective Nostalgic Memories

If you’re reflectively experiencing nostalgic memories, it’s prudent to: 

  • Mentally pump the brakes before spiraling downward—but not too quickly. When a sour emotion surfaces while you’re reminiscing, you’re better off critically evaluating that memory. You might’ve made a mistake, said something disastrous, or been selfish. Perhaps the person you lost, the opportunity you missed, or the breakthrough moment that never came seems to be holding you underwater. Keep in mind, the situation probably wasn’t as bad as you remember it being. 
  • Trust that there will be more chances to connect and prove yourself. The question is whether or not you’re open to new possibilities. Although most nostalgic memories are seen through rose-colored glasses, they’re an important way to remember that there are positive people and opportunities for us to yet experience. After all, the past is proof. 
  • Consider whether it’s time to make new friends, find a new partner, or rekindle an old passion. If we want something that we used to have, we’ll need to work for it—and we have to accept that we’ll encounter at least some resistance in our efforts.

Unlike restorative nostalgia, sensations of reflective nostalgia aren’t pleasant. Evaluate whether your negative emotions could be attached to an underlying mental health condition. Reflecting too long on adversity or negative experiences we’ve had can negatively affect our mental health. A therapist or counselor might be able to help you identify harmful thoughts or associations that may be clouding your view of the past. 

How to Harness Restorative Nostalgic Memories 

When you feel the rush of restorative nostalgia, try to: 

  • Soak it all in, but don’t dwell in the past for too long. If you’re thinking about lost friends, an old relationship, or a breakthrough career moment, the good times you’re remembering can be a motivating way to continue pushing forward, especially when life may seem to remove many relationships and opportunities from our lives over time
  • Remind yourself that the best optimists are also realists. Adversity is an aspect of reality we often have to contend with. Just because what you’re able to recall seems amazing doesn’t mean that it’s an accurate depiction of that relationship, event, or opportunity. There were bad aspects, unique setbacks, and challenges attached to whatever you remember. Don’t make rash decisions based on nostalgic memories—there’s no going back. 
  • Note that you could be exaggerating how “great” things were. Looking back might feel good and cast those positive social interactions, achievements, or settings in a golden light. This is great, but the present moment is all we have. Does your current life contain the things that you’re reminiscing about? Why or why not? Pondering this may reveal what and who makes us happy, as unique individuals.

Feeling nostalgic can be an empowering experience or an overpowering wave. Yet if we slow down enough to process properly, we can take advantage of both reflective and restorative nostalgic moments. The biggest difference between these two psychological phenomena is how radically different they each affect our emotions. When those old memories come barrelling towards us, we can use them as our fuel—or succumb to viewing them as our failures.