declutter · minimalism

the sad truth about nostalgia

The other day, my boyfriend said something that has changed the way I will look at sentimental items forever.

We were talking about the accumulation of stuff that inevitably occurs as we age, and then he turned to me and dropped this truth bomb:

“You know, it seems to me like most nostalgia is rooted in sadness.”


I just stared at him. In a dozen words, he’d made a strong case for getting rid of sentimental stuff — the stuff people often fight hardest to hold on to.

I tend to agree; nostalgia can be really sad. Whether we’re looking at old photographs, sorting through faded toys we played with as children, or thinking about friends who have drifted away from us, it’s always with a wistfulness for days past when we were younger, things were simpler, and life was better.

Last weekend, my mom dealt with some nostalgia when she decided to get rid of me and my sister’s old baby clothes. She’s been holding on to dozens of tiny dresses for more than two decades in case we wanted them for our own daughters, someday.

It was a sweet gesture and the clothes were adorable (Mom has a killer sense of style that I, unfortunately, did not inherit), but after discussing it with my sister and I, she decided it was time to let them go. For my sentimental mother, this was a huge step.

I helped Mom pull all of the dresses out of the basement closet and organize them by size before we donated them. It was a little surreal to pick up a tiny dress and know that, at some distant point in the past, I had been small enough to fit into it. I was surprised by the emotions that were conjured by clothing I couldn’t even remember wearing. Those feelings made me a little sad, which proves my boyfriend’s point.

pile of female children's dresses
The ’90s were lit.

By looking back and holding on to items that no longer serve us, we devalue the moment we’re living in right now.

I know “living in the present” is a stupid, feel-good platitude that has been beaten into the ground by lifestyle gurus to the point of it losing all meaning. That being said, I think it’s something the vast majority of us don’t do enough.

Do you know the definition of nostalgia? It’s this: “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.”

In other words, you’re yearning for the happiness of a time that has passed. It is done and over. We can’t go back. And that distance between where we were and where we are makes us sad. That’s the exact opposite of living in the present, yo.

I’m not hating on nostalgia — it’s okay to reminisce, even when it occasionally bums you out. Remembering family members and great friends who have passed on is an example. But mourning our childhood innocence or holding on to an entire house full of stuff that belonged to a deceased family member — well, that’s a different story. These are the things we need to let go.

At the end of the day, I think it’s important to remember that we are the accumulation of our life’s experiences. We take them with us — all of them, good and bad, the ones we remember and the ones we do everything in our power to forget. They’ve molded us into who we are. We don’t need photos or teacups or old books or school papers to remind us. But if we do keep those things, we should make sure the memories they conjure make us happy, not sad.

My mom holding on to me and my sister’s baby clothes won’t magically turn back time and make us young again. That time has passed, and it won’t ever come again. That’s why it’s so important to live in moments as we experience them. The old days are gone, but new ones are constantly coming. Each one provides us with an opportunity to create exciting new memories as a family.

And someday, when I have children, they will create memories of their own — with new clothes, new experiences, and a new story to tell.

One thought on “the sad truth about nostalgia

  1. Interesting concept. For me an item will spark a memory I may not have thought of or remembered. It can conjure up discussions between parties involved and bring laughter and fond memories of time past. That, to me, does not mean you’re living in the past but remembering fond memories. Guess it depends on your perception.

    After living in the same home for numerous years it’s easy for an accumulation to happen and become overwhelming. The key to avoiding this situation? For every item brought into your home same number of items leave. That being said; this does nothing to tackle the accumulation that has occurred over the years before taking on the item-in item-out mentality. This will require time, patience, and determination to process the years of accumulation.

    When one is on the move constantly you tire of moving the same stuff over and over, however; once you establish a permanent home the process of accumulation begins. Some a necessity some just enhance your life.

    A lesson to learn when establishing a permanent home is a declutter process from day one. This should simplify your life from the beginning stages of your life to empty nester phase.


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