Monday, 24 January 2011

What's it all about, Alfie?

The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival. - Aristotle

Most of our days are filled with with routine activities that aren't particularly significant and not many of us take the time to reflect upon them.  Nostalgia is a way for us to contemplate by tapping into past experiences  that are meaningful - to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are content and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning.

So what are the advantages of nostalgia? A study by Wildschut and colleagues, found that people who reported feeling nostalgic also experienced increased social bonding and increased positive self-regard. 

However, our brains don't work like hard drives of  computers, and our memories aren’t hard coded and unchangeable. Every time you recall a memory it may become subtly altered and associated with what ever it was that triggered that old memory. If this trigger happens repeatedly, then you’re adding new layer of interpretation that will be recalled automatically with the old memory next time it’s called up.

The essence of who we are as individuals is based on our own unique accumulation of memories and experiences.  But is nostalgia really good for us? A 2006 report in Psychology Today magazine  warned that 'overdoing' reminiscence risks an absence of joy derived from the present, and a reliance on past memories to provide feelings of happiness.  To come back to Aristotle, it's not the reminiscence that is valuable, it's the contemplation - without the rose-coloured spectacles - that matters. 

Moreover, sentimental clutter can keep us from moving forward with our lives physically and emotionally. If there is too much of the past taking up space (metaphorical and physical - how much of the stuff in the attic, on the bookcase, in the cupboard, do we actually use or need?) in the present, there isn’t room for growth. Keeping everything from the past can have a negative impact on the future. We get a bump of happiness from sentimental items, so it’s okay to keep a few of the prized possessions. But what to let go and how to do it is a problem many of us share.

A few tips for ways to let go of sentimental clutter:
  • Snap a digital photograph of the item and keep only the image. Save these pictures and make back-up copies.
  • Write a journal entry about the item before you get rid of it. The act of writing down the memory aids contemplation about the experience, which is usually more valuable than the object itself. Keep a hard copy in a scrapbook.
  • If you insist on keeping a sentimental keepsake box, limit it to one box. When box is full, you’ll need to remove something when adding something new.  
When we hold onto things, 'just in case', we complicate our lives. Such things are a drain on our space, time and thoughts. De-cluttering is not all about throwing away your memories. It's about getting rid of real junk – the stuff that is no longer useful or beautiful. 

There are services to help you get rid of it too. General items can be rehomed by the wonder of freecycle ( although I find that there are more 'traders' snagging items than there used to be. If you're concerned about items finding their way into antique/second-hand shops and market stalls for profit, donate to a charity shop.

Start today - de-clutter a small part of your life and leave more room to contemplate the important things. De-clutter for 15 minutes every day. It’s amazing how much you can get through if you just do it in small increments, providing you don't stop for too long with each item contemplating the memories it stirs.