Nostalgia: Why it is good for you

The past is not just a foreign country, but also one we are all exiled from. Like all exiles, we sometimes long to return. That longing is called nostalgia.

Whether it is triggered by a photograph, a first kiss or a treasured possession, nostalgia evokes a particular sense of time or place. We all know the feeling: a sweet sadness for what is gone, in colours that are invariably sepia-toned, rose-tinted, or stained with evening sunlight.

The term “nostalgia” was coined by Swiss physicians in the late 1600s to signify a certain kind of homesickness among soldiers. Nowadays we know it encompasses more than just homesickness (or indeed Swiss soldiers), and if we take nostalgia too far it becomes mawkish or indulgent.

But, perhaps, it has some function beyond mere sentimentality. A series of investigations by psychologist Constantine Sedikides suggest nostalgia may act as a resource that we can draw on to connect to other people and events, so that we can move forward with less fear and greater purpose.

Sedikides was inspired by something called Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is approximately 8,000 times sexier than most theories in psychology, and posits that a primary psychological need for humans is to deal with the inevitability of our own deaths. The roots of this theory are in the psychoanalytic tradition of Sigmund Freud, making the theory a bit different from many modern psychological theories, which draw on more mundane inspirations, such as considering the mind as a computer.

Experiments published in 2008 used a standard way to test Terror Management Theory: asking participants to think about their own deaths, answering questions such as: “Briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” (A control group was asked to think about dental pain, something unpleasant, but not existentially threatening.)

TMT suggests that one response to thinking about death is to cling more strongly to the view that life has some wider meaning, so after their intervention they asked participants to indicate their agreement with statements such as: “Life has no meaning or purpose”, or “All strivings in life are futile and absurd”. From the answers they positioned participants on a scale of how strongly they felt life had meaning.

The responses were influenced by how prone people were to nostalgia. The researchers found that reminding participants of their own deaths was likely to increase feelings of meaninglessness, but only in those who reported that they were less likely to indulge in nostalgia. Participants who rated themselves as more likely than average to have nostalgic thoughts weren’t affected by negative thoughts about their mortality (they rated life as highly meaningful, just like the control group).

Follow-up experiments suggest that people prone to nostalgia were less likely to have lingering thoughts about death, as well as less likely to be vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Nostalgia, according to this view, is very different from a weakness or indulgence. The researchers call it a “meaning providing resource”, a vital part of mental health. Nostalgia acts a store of positive emotions in memory, something we can access consciously, and perhaps also draw on continuously during our daily lives to bolster our feelings. It’s these strong feelings for our past that helps us cope better with our future.

Thanks to Jules Hall for suggesting the topic of nostalgia. If you have an everyday psychological phenomenon you’d like to see written about in these columns please get in touch @tomstafford or ideas@idiolect.org.uk

This was my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

3 Comments

  1. Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s an interesting phenomenon. There are quite a few hypotheses about how nostalgia is beneficial overall, but it also seems to be something that can have detrimental effects. For example, for me sometimes feeling nostalgic can make me feel less satisfied with the present as I compare it to an idealized version of the past. I suppose everyone differs, though, in the extent to which they might do that and how it might effect them. I would think there could be some negative effects societally, too, as some are less likely to embrace societal change (even for the better) because they are inclined to think about “the good old days” and long for, if not a return to those days, then a slowing of the rapidity of change. Of course these are speculative, not research-based, observations :)

  2. Posted June 9, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Great post. It points to one of the many reasons why psychotherapy can be so damaging to a person’s mental health and well-being. Insofar as psychotherapy pokes holes in our fond memories of the past and identifies problems in our past (e.g., problems with our childhood upbringing, problems with our family relationships, problems with the way our parents or siblings treated us, problems with our partners and friendships, etc.), it undermines perhaps our greatest resources to enjoy the present and look forward to the future.

  3. Erik Not Eric
    Posted June 13, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    As a young boy man growing into a man through the 60’s and 70’s I lived during the cultural craze for nostalgia which peaked about 10 years after the 60’s.
    That decade became the measure of culture’s ability to imbue ones life’s journey with meaning gleaned through humanistic endevaours and social expermentation.
    However I did not really recognize the emotion called nostalgia in my 20’s and 30’s. I felt it to a small degree but as I aged it became stronger.
    It was not until I reached my 50’s that I recognized that nostalgia is the mixture of revulsion and recognition.
    I do not seek it nor do I like that I feel it when I hear a steady stream of music from that era. (pre moonshot and post Kennedy). Music that calls for the social change and awakening that the 60’s heralded in.
    I feel it as a sense of utterly exhausting tedium when I imagine reliving those moments again. The experience of nostalgia summons a fresh feeling of nauseau and impatience to “get on with it”.
    This is how I experience nostalgia now.
    Not with any longing, but more with exhaustion.


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