Nostalgia may be more useful than anyone suspected.
Imagine that you could rewind the clock 20 years. It’s 1989. Madonna is topping the pop charts, and TV sets are tuned to “Cheers” and “Murphy Brown.” Widespread Internet use is just a pipe dream, and Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Montana are on recent covers of Sports Illustrated.
But most important, you’re 20 years younger. How do you feel? Well, if you’re at all like the subjects in a provocative experiment by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, you actually feel as if your body clock has been turned back two decades. Langer did a study like this with a group of elderly men some years ago, retrofitting an isolated old New England hotel so that every visible sign said it was 20 years earlier. The men—in their late 70s and early 80s—were told not to reminisce about the past, but to actually act as if they had traveled back in time. The idea was to see if changing the men’s mindset about their own age might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.
Langer’s findings were stunning: After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. Outsiders who were shown the men’s photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed.