The Psychology of Nostalgia: Why Do We Feel a Longing for the Past?
Should we dwell on the past? Until recently, psychologists would likely have argued not to.
However, longing for the past, otherwise known as nostalgia, is now gaining recognition as a useful tool for people fighting anxiety and depression. As a result, nostalgia is a growing focus of global inquiry and research in psychology. In this post, we will look at what nostalgia is, what causes nostalgia, and what some of the psychological benefits of nostalgia, and potential pitfalls, can be. “A feeling of sadness mixed with pleasure and affection when you think of happy times in the past” (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries) Coined by a 17th Century Swiss military doctor, the word itself is rooted in the Greek words nostos (meaning longing for a return home) and algos (the pain linked to this longing). Similarly, in “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding”, nostalgia psychologist Alan Hirsch links nostalgia to a yearning for the past. However, the past longed for is an idealized version of itself, with positive emotions existing in your memory with the accompanying “negative emotions filtered out”. Nevertheless, whilst nostalgia is rooted in a somewhat rose-tinted version of the past, recent studies have shown that nostalgia can offer new perspectives on our present state of being, reminding us of our connectivity with others. Indeed, Hepper et. al.’s study across 18 countries and 5 continents on ‘Pancultural nostalgia’ found nostalgia encouraged feelings of empathy and social connection and even worked as a form of antidote to feelings of loneliness and depression. Whether we are going through tough times, or things are simply changing in our personal lives, memories of simpler times are a common refuge that can provide us solace. Furthermore, research has shown that nostalgia is a common response to change. As such, when we are going through a transition in our lives, be it becoming an adult, reaching retirement age, moving to a new country or even struggling to cope with technological advances, we are driven to nostalgic yearning. Interestingly then, nostalgia is typically caused by negative emotions but typically fosters an improved mood and increases positive emotions. However, this nostalgia comes with a bittersweet taste, since we can only experience the good times intangibly and fleetingly. Moreover, a 1985 psychoanalytic paper on nostalgia found extreme cases of nostalgia could be debilitative due to this search for something that never truly was there. Given this, should we view nostalgia as a malady to overcome or a useful tool to help guide us through turbulent waters? Researchers into the psychology of nostalgia at the University of Southampton have found that nostalgia can act as a neurological defense system that helps us to overcome negative thoughts or experiences. Nostalgia achieves this as it helps people to achieve a temporary change in how they perceive their current state. This enables them the strength to persevere through hard times. Moreover, by connecting people with their past in their own mind’s eye, it reminds them that their present state of being is temporary. So even if they are feeling isolated in the present, nostalgia reminds them of intimacy they have achieved in the past and reminds them that positive times can lie ahead and that they are not alone. Nostalgia also has benefits for the wider community, with people in nostalgic states having been found in the same study to be more likely to demonstrate altruistic traits and commit to volunteering. Similarly, children who have been encouraged to think about the past more, making them more prone to feelings of nostalgia, were found to be less likely to demonstrate selfish traits. Nostalgia has also been shown to have physiological as well as psychological effects. For example, Zhou et al.’s 2012 study on the psychology of nostalgia found that participants in their study who were left in a cold room were more likely to experience nostalgia. Moreover, they found that those experiencing nostalgia perceived the ambient temperature to be higher and could tolerate colder conditions than participants not reporting feelings of nostalgia.
The great news is, a single positive memory last’s a lifetime so even for those with troubled pasts, nostalgia can be a useful psychological tool to draw upon to help people navigate troublesome waters. As already alluded to, nostalgia was previously seen as a malady rather than a potentially useful tool to fight against depression. Indeed, if we allow ourselves to retreat too much into the romanticized past we have created for ourselves, then it can have negative implications. This relates to something Barbara B. Stern termed ‘Historical Nostalgia’, or the desire to escape from the present into an unreachable, imaginary, and idealized past.
Therefore, it is important to take care to not rely too heavily on nostalgia as the major benefits are felt in its transitory effects. Nostalgia can be a useful tool to help us overcome challenges in our lives, help us feel connected to others when we are feeling isolated or alone, and even foster improved connections with our community. So next time you feel wistful about the past, enjoy it and let this natural response to life’s changes give you hope for a brighter tomorrow. R.
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