About a week ago, a relative sent me an Instagram post that was going viral: an image of a man holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Stop Posting Old Travel Pics.” The man could have been holding the sign for me, someone who’s been passing time during the coronavirus pandemic by posting old travel photos.
I knew the practice bothered people before I saw the writing on the cardboard. A friend had recently replied to one of my posts of a trip abroad last year with the message, “stop living in the past.”
But I knew I wasn’t alone. My social media feeds lately have been full of people sharing fond memories of trips, cookouts, concerts and other currently-impossible pastimes.
What does taking a trip down memory lane mean during a global crisis? And why are we so drawn to do so?
I talked to experts about the pros and cons of “Posting Old Travel Pics” to find out.
Looking through your old travel photos may make you happier.
This morning, I scrolled through my phone to find pictures from a trip I took with my mom in 2016. Alone in my apartment, I realized I was smiling at my phone screen while I looked for the photos I wanted to post on Instagram.
“By focusing on those positive memories, your body releases dopamine, and dopamine is kind of the reward center of the brain,” says A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College and a former U.S. Army surgical nurse. Dopamine “makes us feel really good. It gives us a lot of good, positive energy.”
Marsden says you can get even more out of your old travel memories than a dopamine release by focusing on experiences where you felt accomplished. Maybe it was a time you made it through a tough hike or broke through language barriers on vacation.
“When we think about those past accomplishments on our trips, then we release more serotonin,” Marsden says. “Serotonin increases our well-being and our general happiness and general satisfaction."
Appreciating your travel experiences can be a mood-booster, too.
If you’re feeling low, try going back through travel photos you appreciate most.
“If we approach [looking at old travel photos] with gratitude, glass-half-full, then it could be a nice experience and could be a fun distraction from sitting at home,” says Thomas G. Plante, a psychologist and professor at Santa Clara and Stanford universities.
You can take that sentiment a step further by creating a gratitude journal. “Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness,” according to research about positive psychology.
“Even when things are hard, we want to ask ourselves, what am I grateful for?” says Plante, who recommends listing everything you’re grateful for, from your travel experiences to basics or simple things, like your health or Netflix.
Taking time to appreciate your travel experiences in a gratitude journal, or thoughtfully reviewing travel photos to post on social media, can give you the opportunity to savor those happy memories.
“The psychological concept of savoring is very powerful,” says Suzie Pileggi Pawelski, a positive-psychology expert and co-author with her husband of “Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts.” Savoring travel memories “could be a really good way to kind of relive those positive emotions,” she adds.
But don’t expect reviewing old travel photos to rescue you.
“Like any kind of distraction, like binge eating or having some alcohol, in the moment, it’s distracting. But if you’re just trying to do that to escape from reality, you’re going to come back with problems,” says Pawelski’s husband, James, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center.
Ignore people who criticize your social media posts.
Stacey Leasca, a journalist and adjunct journalism professor at the University of Southern California, has received a different reaction to posting her old travel photos than I have.
“What’s so funny is, one of my throwback pictures is actually my most-liked picture of all time,” says Leasca, who was formerly the social media editor for the Los Angeles Times.
Leasca says she loves posting her travel experiences on social media and likes inspiring others to travel again after the pandemic.
“I find a lot of joy in being able to both look back on my previous experiences to celebrate what they were, and also think about what my future in travel could look like again,” she says.