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A new view of an old emotion, or how science is saving nostalgia

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from a major news organisation about my research on the psychology of nostalgia. The reporter was asking me questions such as, “Isn’t it unhealthy to live in the…

A trip down memory lane could do you more good than you might think. Alex Bowyer

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from a major news organisation about my research on the psychology of nostalgia.

The reporter was asking me questions such as, “Isn’t it unhealthy to live in the past?” and, “Does nostalgia keep people from looking forward, planning for the future, and embracing new opportunities?”

Turns out this reporter had spoken to some economists who were pushing the idea that nostalgia is a barrier to living in the present and investing in the future.

I wasn’t terribly surprised that the starting point of our conversation was about how nostalgia might be problematic. After all, this has been the view of this emotion for hundreds of years.

A sad history

When the term nostalgia was coined in the late 18th century, it was employed to describe what was believed to be a cerebral disease unique to Swiss mercenaries fighting wars far from home.

Nostalgia was a source of suffering, causing symptoms such as irregular heartbeats, anxiety, insomnia, and disordered eating.

Eventually, nostalgia evolved from being considered a medical condition to being viewed as a mental disorder similar to depression. And this was the case until the later part of the 20th century.

The problem with this view of nostalgia as unhealthy is that it is empirically unsubstantiated. Past scholars and practitioners did not systematically explore the experience of nostalgia and the effect it had on people.

Nostalgia activates positive states such as increased self-esteem, and feelings of social connectedness. emdot/Flickr

They observed that nostalgia was accompanied by symptoms indicative of ill health (anxiety, for instance, and sadness) and assumed that they were the cause. They didn’t entertain the possibility that the relationship went the other way: nostalgia is a response to distress, not the trigger.

So, nostalgia had a bad rep.

During my interview, I asked the reporter what kind of data these economists had to support the view that nostalgia is harmful. Silence. And then the distant sound of crickets.

A new page

Nostalgia has now received a great deal of attention in the field of empirical psychology and dozens of published studies paint a much more positive picture of this emotion than past scholars did (and some present-day economists evidently).

Many of these studies were conducted by my colleagues and I, and after about ten years of laboratory research, a number of questions about nostalgia can now be answered with data.

Does nostalgia lead to poor mental health? That is, is nostalgia bad for you? No. Studies in which nostalgia is experimentally manipulated indicate that engaging in nostalgic thoughts does not lead to negative emotional states.

Instead, nostalgia activates a number of positive states. Specifically, nostalgia increases positive mood, self-esteem, feelings of social connectedness, and perceptions of meaning in life.

To date, no research has reliably observed any negative psychological consequences of nostalgia.

OK, but why is nostalgia good for people? To answer this question, we need to consider the content of nostalgic memories.

Studies indicate that nostalgic memories are focused on personally treasured life experiences. When people engage in nostalgia, they bring to mind past experiences that they find meaningful.

Nostalgic memories tend to prominently feature the self, but are also very social in nature. People are nostalgic about time spent with close others.

Finally, nostalgic memories are happy memories or at least memories that have happy endings. So nostalgia is good for people because nostalgic reflection allows them to revisit cherished experiences from the past shared with friends and family.

And these experiences make people feel meaningful, valued, loved and happy.

What makes people nostalgic?

Nostalgia has a wide range of triggers. Familiar smells, music, and connecting with old friends on Facebook can activate nostalgia.

Many things can trigger nostalgia, such as music. avern/Flickr

But research shows the experiences that most commonly trigger nostalgia could be described as psychological threats. Loneliness, for instance, is a prominent trigger of nostalgia.

Other psychological threats that have been documented to generate nostalgia include negative moods and feelings of meaninglessness. So past physicians and therapists might have been correct in detecting a relationship between negative emotional states and nostalgia.

But they were wrong about the direction of the relationship. Nostalgia doesn’t trigger distress, distress triggers nostalgia. And, as current research demonstrates, nostalgia promotes good psychological health.

Indeed, nostalgia appears to be the tool people use to counter or cope with negative psychological states.

Is it good?

Nostalgia helps people cope with psychological vulnerabilities. A recent series of studies, for instance, indicates that loneliness leads to nostalgia, which, in turn, increases feelings of social support.

A consequence of being lonely is the feeling that you have no one to turn to for support. And perceived social support is important for mental and physical health.

Nostalgic memories typically involve close relationships and remind people that they have others who care about them. So when people are lonely, they recruit nostalgia to bolster feelings of social support.

Other studies indicate that nostalgia similarly helps people cope with feelings of meaninglessness.

A number of scholars in labs around the world are now studying nostalgia. And a similar picture is emerging across these different labs.

Nostalgia is a healthy emotion that promotes well-being and helps people cope with vulnerabilities and insecurities. Nostalgia is not about living in the past, it is utilising the past to help with struggles in the present.

Nostalgia doesn’t keep people from looking ahead and planning for the future – it helps give them the strength to move forward.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Liz Downes

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Sigh. As a friend once commented - nostalgia just ain't what it used to be.

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  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    As a recovering economist I must take up the cudgels in defence of my former affliction.

    It's the years spent stooped over ill-lit tomes. All the economists of note I have ever met are stiff necked and frozen - unable and even unwilling to turn back and look over their shoulders.

    Extends itself to history - previous experience is discounted to a zero value. The past is always complex - not like the future where the choices are simple and clear.

    This allows the profession to ignore previous efforts and failures, to make the same errors and mistakes again and again, to insist that economic tools are blunt instruments like stone axes and clubs.

    So do not throw scorn at our serried ranks of crippled economists marching forward into the new future like a battalion of North Korean special forces on parade. They dare not look back.

    The dismal science indeed.

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      As somebody who swims among the sharks in both History and Economics, I have never encountered this alleged economist's position against nostalgia. But I tell you where you'll find in buckets, and that is among leftwing postmodernist historians. They all think they're heirs to Nietzsche, and that affectionately focusing on the past is life-draining, as it prevents us focusing on the present, and building a better future. But they weren't always history-hating post-modernists. They used to be modernist…

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  3. john tons

    retired redundant

    I have another take on nostalgia. The danger with a nostalgic look at the past is that we can miss the opportunities that an understanding of the past provides. We are moving into a turbulent period - there is mounting evidence that over the next decade or so we will see the end of an era of abundant prosperity - the good times are well and truly behind us and it will be left to those remaining to clean up after the party. To embark on that with hope means that we need to have a solid understanding…

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  4. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    People look back in the past for to remember a better time!

    To say it was much better back then is just a way to deal with the current problems people have.

    To say it is “unhealthy to live in the past and it stops people looking forward” is just one point of view. People always dream about a better life and if the future is bleak, then people will think of a better time in their lives as to comfort them.

    Some products were better or looked nicer or had quality to them. eg: clothing or the American muscle cars of the 1960’s or the music of the 1950/60’s or the most commonly the golden era of Hollywood “the movies of the 1930’s to the 1950’s”.

    What we humans fail to do is learn from the mistakes of the past as we keep repeating them every new generation!

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to George Naumovski

      George, I've gotta say, I have never met these people who pine for some mythical past golden age. I remember my grandfather when they bought their first microwave oven. He said, "I used to live in the good old days, and you can stick them where the sun don't shine." As an historian, I look at the 1950s and 1960s as almost medieval. Dreary, black & white, uncomfortable, impoverished. And even my own lifetime, even though I loved those years from about 16 to 24, where your only responsibility is passing school/uni exams twice a year, working on your tan, skiing, and drinking, I don't want to go back. Give me the 21st century any day!

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  5. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Sometimes out and about I come across people who choose to dress in garb from another era - could be the rock era with tight jeans, pointy-toed shoes and brylcreemed hair, or it could be the halcyon hippie days recreated with a tie-dyed poncho and braided hair.

    Most of us don't go for recreating the past in the present to that degree, but I'm sure most of who are a generation or so older than the Gen Ys or Zs have made a comment or two about how things have changed and not always for the better…

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen, I'm not at that age to start tut-tutting the younger generation. But my god, do I notice a difference with the so-called "digital natives"; people born using an iphone, instagraming their arrival. They strike me as very dumb, and incredibly uninteresting. I wonder if we are making a big mistake in thinking we could toss aside old eduction methods, presuming that Google and Wikipedia make all past methods irrelevant. Sometimes, you really have to respond to a discussion, or a question, or a situation, in knowledge-filled sentences, and you're iphone's run out of gas. There's nothing stored between your two ears, except for "like, totally awesome dude".

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  6. john mills

    artist

    Great article. The good old days hey, nothing wrong with the "good" old days, its the "bad" old days we need to concern ourselves with, remembering good is healthy , remembering bad is miserising, too much of anything is no good for you, standard common sense, no need to call in the scientists, just ask grandma.

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  7. Olaf Smith

    Ancient Mariner

    A teaser of an article presented in frustratingly broad terms. That "nostalgia" has a therapeutic value or that it forms part of an armoury of coping mechanisms is hardly arguable. Just ask the old, weary, confused, disenfranchised, impotent or any Swiss mercenary.

    Any discussion of the topic could do worse than to start with A E Houseman's "Shropshire Lad."

    "That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain.
    The happy highways where I went
    And cannot go again."

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  8. David Maddern

    logged in via Facebook

    What I find confusing about this paper is that you begin describing nostalgia as what is probably now describes as PTSD. Now the word has a different meaning. Just like terrific, wild and sick.

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    1. David Maddern

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I think you will find that armchair generals were the Luies, or bottom of the officer heap in a war 40 or 50 years before.

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  9. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    I find myself often getting nostalgic, but the funny thing is, when I seriously and honestly think about it, those fond times of recollection actually didn't seem so great when I was there living them - it's only now, looking back even from good present times, that they appear wonderful. However, I do remember that most of my youth was spent in preparing for some great future, working, studying, raising kids, paying off, then realising around the age of 40 that I had passed my peak and such a future was never going to come, that I'd better start living it right now. I suspect that this discovery, that suddenly "your future is behind you", is the driving force of the mid-life crisis. Perhaps it means that we should treasure every moment more while we live it, even in childhood.

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