How Nostalgia Is Making the World a Better Place—One Memory at a Time

Years ago, William Dunn encountered a young boy who was having behavioral problems. After learning that the boy’s father wasn’t in his life, William offered to take the young man fishing. For William, fishing had always been a restorative activity that helped him deal with the stressors of life, and fishing also had a personal nostalgic connection. Although his own childhood had been difficult, William still cherished memories of fishing with his father, and he’d always known how special it was when his dad took him fishing. William’s fishing outings with the young man became regular events, and soon the boy’s behavior started to improve. He became a better student and was more respectful to his mother at home.

After seeing such a positive change in this boy’s life, it became William’s life calling to help other fatherless kids. He started contacting foster homes and taking groups of kids fishing every weekend, at his own expense. William did this for years—helping kids learn not just how to fish but also how to take responsibility in life and how to support one another.

A few years ago, William was able to take his calling to the next level by establishing Take a Kid Fishing Inc. as a nonprofit organization, allowing him to expand his mission of mentoring underprivileged and fatherless kids through fishing trips. William still goes fishing with the first boy—now a young man—whom he helped over a decade ago.

William took a hobby shaped by his own nostalgia and turned it into a project that has directly improved the lives of thousands of kids and has likely indirectly affected the lives of many more, because the kids William has helped will be motivated to do the same by the nostalgic memories William helped them create. Every day, people like William all over the world act with purpose to improve the world.

Nostalgia is much more than a past-oriented, self-reflective experience. Nostalgia plays a vital role in helping us utilize our agency to live meaningful lives and make meaningful contributions to the lives of others.

Existential Agency: We Control the Meaning in Our Lives

A number of aspects in life are out of our control. We can’t choose who our parents are, the country of our birth, our physical characteristics, or many of our psychological traits. Genetics, as well as the social and cultural environments we don’t have much say in, significantly influence who we are.

That being said, humans are an intellectual species and that means we have the power to generate long-term goals and follow through with thoughtful planning and determination. We can consciously decide to build upon our strengths and limit the impact of our weaknesses. For instance, if you know that you’re likely to eat too much junk food if it’s in the house, you have the power to plan accordingly, to purchase healthier options in the store, and to do whatever else it takes to reduce temptation at home. Indeed, this is a key feature of finding success in conquering addiction. Even when we have genetic vulnerabilities, knowledge is power. Knowing our vulnerabilities and triggers gives us important knowledge that we can use to plan, make informed decisions, and structure our lives in ways that best position us to achieve our goals.

If we do get derailed, our agency can empower us to reset, get back on course, or find a new path. An agentic life involves running all sorts of mental simulations, traveling into the past and future, and using personal and collective experience to move toward the lives we most want to lead.

When it comes to finding meaning in life, we’re not merely at the mercy of good or bad fortune. Regardless of the cards we’re dealt and the life circumstances we find ourselves in, we’re all in the driver’s seat when it comes to finding meaning. To be existentially agentic is to take responsibility for finding, maintaining, and restoring meaning.

My own thinking on this subject has been largely influenced by the work of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. As a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, Frankl witnessed and experienced unimaginable suffering. Even so, he developed an appreciation for the power of psychological freedom and the agency it creates. Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning details his experiences in the concentration camps as well as the existential psychotherapy he developed as a result. He writes:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl argued that meaning in life is a fundamental human need and also that individuals have the freedom to pursue a meaningful life—regardless of how difficult that life is. People may fail to take responsibility for their lives but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to do so. It just means that they aren’t acting on their agency.

Existential agency, a term Andrew Abeyta and I coined, is us taking meaning into our own hands. This doesn’t conflict with other perspectives on meaning—for example, a religious perspective that suggests meaning is a gift from a divine creator—because even if you believe that God has a purpose for your life, I suspect you also believe that it’s your responsibility to uncover that purpose and act on it, regardless of the barriers that may stand in your way. You understand that if you want to reach your full potential, you are ultimately the one who has to step up.

Nostalgia Supports Existential Agency

Nostalgia helps us refocus our attention on what we find most central to our self-concept. Life is full of distractions, and we often operate on autopilot. This can be helpful after we’ve established the types of habits and routines that support our health and well-being, but it can also be detrimental if our behaviors are mindless or harmful. Relying too much on autopilot can also prove a barrier to living a more intentional life. At least some of the time, we need to take stock of our lives and ask ourselves if we’re optimizing our psychological freedom. We need to refocus our attention and activate an existentially agentic mindset. This is where nostalgia can be especially useful.

When people engage in nostalgic reflection, they access the memories that reveal the authentic self—the person they truly want to be. This helps them identify a goal, which is the first step to using one’s existential agency to make a positive life change. For example, a common meaning-focused goal involves spending more time with family. Imagine someone who has moved far away from their family to pursue a particular career. They’ve lived at a distance for years but have recently felt like something is missing, despite enjoying a great deal of professional success. They begin to revisit nostalgic memories that involve the family they moved away from, the relationships that make them feel truly valued. This offers clarity for future planning. They decide they’re going to start thinking about new ways to market the skills they have developed to find a new job closer to family, even though it will be difficult to change jobs. It might even require a pay cut or doing something quite a bit different from what they are currently doing. When they begin to have doubts about moving closer to their family when faced with so much upheaval and uncertainty, they return to the nostalgic memories of time they spent with their family. This keeps that meaningful goal fresh in their mind, which reenergizes them. It renews their focus and motivation to pursue their goal and inspires them to think creatively about this challenge. Nostalgia helps them maintain hope and reminds them that the things in life that are most meaningful often don’t come easy.

Nostalgia Leads to Action

Many of the nostalgia-motivated activities that give our lives meaning involve efforts to positively impact the lives of others. Think about creative inspiration. Musicians, filmmakers, writers, entrepreneurs, and others who are in the business of trying to innovate or do something unique often have experienced something in their lives that inspires their creative work. Even when people strive for novelty, they need their creativity sparked by something, and often it’s something they find personally meaningful from their past. They might be creating entirely new characters or developing an original world for those characters to inhabit, but below the surface of their art is a deeper connection to real-world elements of their past. When people make something to share with the world, they’re engaged in the type of activity that cultivates dynamic and flourishing societies.

People who start businesses are trying to make money. A business won’t last long if it doesn’t turn a profit. But most entrepreneurs aren’t only focused on making money. They’re also motivated to serve an unmet need in their community, introduce a product or service that will improve people’s lives, or find a way to turn a talent or hobby into something that interests others. Look around your community and you’ll find all sorts of people trying to make a living or just a little extra money selling products and services that make your life more pleasant and the community a better place to live.

For many entrepreneurs, nostalgia plays a role in their business. Someone who opens a new ice cream shop may have powerful memories of their mother taking them to get ice cream as a special after-school treat. Someone who opens up a food truck may be inspired to share favorite foods from their childhood. Another who trains to be a mechanic with the goal of starting their own shop may have developed their love for working on cars as the result of happy memories fixing up old cars with their dad. I’ve met all sorts of small business owners who have nostalgic stories that sparked their start-up ambitions.

Of course, many people are creators of some type but aren’t necessarily looking to make money. Even so, they still use their talents to positively impact others. They sew quilts for family members, sing in their church choir, use their talents to help an organization raise money for a good cause, and so on. Such activities are often tied to nostalgic memories. People are more likely to want to develop and share their gifts if they’re associated with nostalgic memories.

All of us are potential creators who can positively affect others. Even something as simple as baking cookies to share with neighbors is an agentic and outward-focused activity often rooted in nostalgia. Baking cookies for a neighbor is motivated by a desire to do something kind, something that will make someone else feel happy and socially valued. What makes us think that baking them cookies will have that effect? In all likelihood, it’s because we have fond memories of someone making cookies for us. When a family member, friend, or neighbor did so, it made us feel welcomed and valued. Cookies are made of flour, sugar, fat, and nostalgia.

This essay is adapted with permission from Clay Routledge’s new book, “Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life,” which is available to order here.

Clay Routledge
Clay Routledge
Clay Routledge is the Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute. He is also co-editor of Profectus, an online magazine dedicated to human progress and flourishing. As a leading expert in existential psychology, Clay’s work focuses on helping people reach their full potential and build meaningful lives. Clay is a highly cited researcher who has published more than 100 scholarly papers, co-edited three academic books, authored three books, and received numerous awards for his research and mentorship. As a public intellectual, Clay has authored dozens of articles for popular outlets, and his work has been covered by numerous newspapers, television and radio shows, podcasts, and documentary programs. His newest book, Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life, was published in 2023.
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