Going home for the holidays is always fraught with emotion. And nowhere does that come to the fore more than in your childhood bedroom. If your parents have taken the cryogenic preservation route (i.e. they can’t be bothered changing it), then your bedroom is likely exactly as it was when you flew the nest — complete with prom photos, angsty band posters, and basketball trophies. Steel yourself for the crushing wave of nostalgia that inevitably follows.
Pick up the basketball trophy, flip through the yearbook. You still hate the photo. The rediscovery of those relics can feel overwhelming, but nostalgia is a universal experience. The week after the Thanksgiving holiday it became powerful enough to trend on social media, as people shared objects from their past — from Harry Potter merch to memorabilia from the original Beverly Hills 90210.
For some of us, nostalgia can be acute — so acute, in fact, that it has a bearing on how we think and act in the present day. We asked the experts why your childhood bedroom gets you every time.
Oh, and if your parents turned your old room into a home gym, you’ve now got a solid, science-backed reason to be mad about it. Nostalgia could hold some surprising benefits for our mental health.
Why old junk from the past feels special
Social psychologist David B. Newman, at the University of Southern California, tells Inverse that they can trigger happy memories: “If a particular period of time was very meaningful, it can be nice to hang on to those objects to remind you of the good times.”
But memory is complicated — and not always happy, says Krystine Batcho, professor at Le Moyne College, New York. When she analyzed the role of nostalgia in Ukrainian anti-Nazi resistance movements, she found that people treasured small objects that represented difficult experiences, like the lives they had before being forced from their homes.
“I found a similar theme of people treasuring small mementos to remain connected to their home country and all that the objects represented about the lives they were forced to leave behind,” she tells Inverse.
Those objects provided solace — a complex emotional experience, she says.
"The passage of time is inevitable and irreversible."
We hold on to these objects because they help us navigate the passage of time, Batcho says.
“Research suggests that people hold on to objects from their past, their youth, even their childhood, in an effort to hold on to the past, knowing the passage of time is inevitable and irreversible,” she says.
The benefits of nostalgia
This impulse to hold on to nostalgic things is actually good — unless things stray into hoarder territory. Objects that illicit powerful nostalgic feelings like souvenirs or photographs, mainstays of a childhood bedroom, can make people feel better, says Batcho.
Healthy nostalgia can increase what Batcho calls “continuity of self.” That’s the idea that even as your circumstances change, the inherent qualities that define who you are don’t get swept away. You are still the kid who won that t-ball trophy, even if you haven’t touched a bat in years.
This feeling of continuity can cause us to reach out to people who have shaped the person you’ve become. In that sense, nostalgia can be a very social experience, and can make us feel less lonely, Batcho says.
Newman agrees — and the downstream affects could be specially beneficial. “If the nostalgic feeling leads you to reach out to an old friend, that could bring you closer to that friend who you haven’t contacted in many years,” he says. “This likely leads to positive outcomes, such as positive feelings, a sense that life is meaningful, and a positive outlook on your future.”
Both self-continuity and the social component of nostalgia can have positive impacts on the way we view our future selves, too. A paper published in 2013 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that listening to nostalgic songs boost optimism and increase self-esteem.
Nostalgia is not just an old, sepia-toned photo, locked in a box. Its power is far-reaching and can brighten up the path ahead,” the study authors wrote.
Can nostalgia be bad?
Nostalgia may have a downside, however. Scientists aren’t exactly sure when nostalgia becomes a liability, but the consensus is that it does happen.
Rather than inspire our future selves, nostalgia could be holding you back, says Neel Burton, a psychologist at Oxford University.
“If your nostalgia is beginning to make you angry or sad, if it’s preventing you from engaging as well as you used to with family, friends, and colleagues, then, probably, it has become more of a problem than a solution,” he tells Inverse.
Encountering your childhood bedroom and feeling filled with a longing for a “simpler” past is one thing, but if you find yourself battling nostalgia every day it may be a sign of something serious. People tend to feel nostalgic in daily life when they’re going through rough patches, according to Newman. Essentially, people crave the halcyon days of the past. Nostalgia can even make your current situation feel worse than it really is, he says.
Researchers don’t know where the line between positive and negative nostalgia can be drawn. For now, you need to understand why you’ve been drawn to explore these nostalgic feelings to start with, the researchers say.
“My not-so-surprising guess is that triggers that are positive, like hanging out with friends, lead to positive outcomes, whereas triggers that are negative, like feeling lonely are likely detrimental for your well-being,” says Newman.
So if you’re walking into your childhood bedroom eager to hunt for treasures that make you more connected to yourself and those in your past, that could be a boon to your future self. But be wary of rifling through drawers seeking answers for life’s problems — even the most significant of knickknacks may not be able to deliver that.