I once met a man called Tommy who had tattooed three long, red claw marks across his left forearm. 'It's to remind me of a woman I once loved,' he explained. Strange. I thought we were supposed to forget about the people who brought us pain, not etch their memory into our skin. But here was Tommy with his tattoo complicating something that seemed reasonably straightforward to me. He must have read the confusion on my face and added: 'You and I are more alike than you think, Rachel. Maybe you'll realise once you get older.'

That was four years ago, but since it popped back into my head last week I've concluded that Tommy's tattoo isn't as bizarre as I'd initially assumed. Everyone gets nostalgic from time to time, apparently as often as once a week. It's not uncommon to derive a sense of pleasure or peace from even the saddest or most painful memories. Every one of us has listened to a song, revisited somewhere or watched a film that reminds us of a person, place or time that is no longer a part of our lives – though Tommy's reminder was perhaps a little more permanent.

Nostalgia is triggered by existential threats like loneliness, meaninglessness and feeling disconnected. It's said to be most prominent among young adults adjusting to transitions like leaving home and beginning work, as well as middle-aged adults who are re-evaluating their lives. Psychologists largely consider it a healthy emotion since it helps establish continuity between the past and the present. For those reflecting on painful memories, the knowledge that these times are over serves as a source of comfort and strength.

Yet, until the 19th century, nostalgia was considered a psychological affliction. Johannes Hofer coined the term in the 17th century to describe a brain disorder which plagued mercenary soldiers, and it's only over the last century that psychologists have begun to regard it as a natural emotion and not as a crippling form of homesickness.

The kind of nostalgia which causes us to look to the past with the desire to recreate it has been distinguished from its more pensive and detached counterpart by Svetlana Boym in 'The Future of Nostalgia'. In her study, she identifies two types of nostalgia: 'restorative' and 'reflective'. The former stresses a romanticised notion of home and attempts to recreate a lost past. The latter, by contrast, thrives on an aesthetic distance; it is the irretrievability of the past that makes it so appealing. Those who can accept that the past is the past will benefit most from looking back. It is acceptance and the willingness to move on that distinguishes restorative from reflective nostalgia. When we compare our present lives with the past, rather than when we connect the two, we turn healthy reflection into unhealthy dwelling.

I’m not sure which of these Tommy's tattoo embodied, but as I thought about what he said to me all those years ago I realised that he was right; we're more alike than I knew at the time.

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