This past weekend I attended my 25th college reunion. It was a much-needed opportunity to connect with some of my closest friends and reconnect with people who played an important part in my life that I hadn’t seen in decades.
Upon reflecting on what was a fun and enjoyable weekend, two themes stuck out to me which I believe have broader implications.
It was a wonderfully positive experience to see people I had not seen in years and reminisce about decades-old memories. Many of us have experienced the warm comfort of revisiting our fondest past stories, which is why we have reunions in the first place. It’s also why we choose to keep certain objects in our home, watch old reruns and movies, cook dishes from our childhood or go to the concert of the band that’s past its prime.
However, there is a distinction between negative and positive nostalgia.
Nostalgia that causes us to revisit our past with a sense of “the good old days” remorse often leaves us feeling as if the best days of our lives are in the rearview mirror. This type of reminiscing is ultimately negative, because it keeps us stuck in the past, unable to appreciate what we have today.
In contrast, positive nostalgia is not about longing to return to the past. Instead, it is the fond remembrance of past events with a focus on the positive emotions they evoke. The key is to use positive nostalgia as a source of inspiration, motivation, and a reminder of the positive aspects of life, while still embracing the opportunities and experiences of the present moment.
Personally, as looked back on my college life, I saw those memories more like an asset that was paying dividends to my current self—the small actions and choices years ago that made me who I am today. I also looked back on them with a realistic lens, recognizing that some of those cherished memories involved very poor judgment or decision-making and could have ended differently. While I am fond of the memories, I don’t regret that they are in the past and realize they were part of a specific time in my life.
As one would expect at a reunion, I spent most of the day engaged in conversation. Though I’d lost part of my voice by bedtime, it was full day of deep connection that happened entirely in-person.
This type of deep, in-person interaction is becoming rarer today. The increasingly virtual nature of how we live and work keeps us physically separated and communicating through short messages, not long talks. This is a mistake; in-depth connection is a biological imperative, and its absence is likely a direct cause of a record number of people identifying as lonely today.
To that point, one of the statistics my Apple Watch tracks is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is different from heart rate. In general, a higher HRV is usually a sign of good health; it suggests your body can adapt quickly to changes in your environment or your body’s needs. Low HRV, on the other hand, can be a sign of stress, fatigue, or even illness.
I’ve noticed over the past few months is that my HRV tends to be highest after periods of prolonged social interactions, such as a long dinner with friends or family, and lowest after hours of Zoom meetings. Not surprisingly, when I looked at my HRV Saturday night, it was the highest it had been in months.
Human interactions, especially in-person ones, involve a complex interplay of biological, chemical, and psychological processes that are not typically present, or are less pronounced, in online interactions. Studies have proven that certain vital neurotransmitters are only activated by meaningful interactions, including oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, which result in feelings of happiness, pleasure, reward, mood elevation and even painkilling.
In contrast, stress hormones such as cortisol occur during tense or negative interactions. And for the all the benefits of virtual communications, talking online can lead to misinterpretations of body language and tone, which can increase this type of stress response.
My reunion was a crucial reminder that we need two things to be happier and healthier. First, we need positive nostalgia that fills us with appreciation for the past, rather than a longing to return to it. Second, we need to invest in more in-person moments with those we care about that may become our future memories.
In our current time, we’re too quick to make excuses to avoid going out and seeing people in-person. Next time you have an opportunity to have quality in-person time with new and old friends and colleagues, find a way to make it happen.
Quote of The Week
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”