Think of a significant event in your life involving others; a time and an incident that you will never experience in the same way ever again. You might recall the time you left high school, or graduated from college. Or, you might remember the first moments when you first cradled your child in your arms. If you have children that are a little older now, do you recall the last time you were able to carry them in your arms? For some, a remembrance of the times past triggers recollections of major life events. For many, such significant events may involve recollections of disappointments, hurts, loneliness, regrets or losses. Our most memorable memories are often those which are most emotional in nature; it probably wouldn’t take too long before one such memory hits upon an event we would prefer to sooner forget. Such events elicit an emotion called nostalgia.
What is nostalgia? Nostalgia is defined as a ‘sentimental longing for, or wistful affection for times past.’ First coined by Swiss physician Johanes Hofer, the term was used to describe what the physician observed to be psychological maladies afflicting Swiss traders who spent too much time on foreign soil. The etymology of the word nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos (which means ‘return home’) and algos (which translates to pain, suffering, and relentless longing or yearning’). What Hofer and many after him believed is that such sentimental longing was a recurrent mental affliction or neurological disease akin to homesickness. Such a view of nostalgia persisted for a good two centuries, but over time, its conceptualization evolved from one of being a psychological disorder to being a milder form of depression. Nostalgia was still at this time viewed negatively, with associations drawn between this emotion with dysfunctional states such as grief and depression . It is only within the last decade or so that psychological research has shown that experiencing nostalgia can actually contribute to psychological well-being in numerous ways.
What triggers nostalgia? Tim Wildschut and colleagues asked participants to share stories that they considered personally nostalgic in their lives. The researchers than examined the stories reported by the participants. They found that nostalgia to be a self-relevant emotion – participants in the study recalled events that featured them as the primary actor, and, tellingly, that the nostalgic experience was strongly associated with others. This research study also found that despite triggers of nostalgia being negative events (e.g. loss) and associated with negative emotions, the participants concluded their description of their personal stories on a more positive, triumphant note. In other words, nostalgic events concluded with a ‘redemptive’ theme – the stories started off initially as being negative, but ended positively or triumphantly. For this reason, Wildschut and colleagues propose that, unlike initial assumptions, nostalgia is a primarily positive emotion . The researchers also found that when feeling nostalgic, participants reported lower levels of attachment anxiety – suggesting that this emotion fostered closer, stronger perceived social ties with others. They also reported higher levels of self-esteem and regard for themselves, and more generally, had higher levels of positive emotions than individuals in the non-nostalgic comparison condition. Think about how what these findings mean for your own experiences. You may, for instance, never be able to cradle your child in your arms in the same you did when they were infants – but knowing, and recognizing that the times you have spent with them in the past has allowed them to live happy, successful lives of their own may trigger nostalgia in you. You may never again be able to spend the time listening to your grandfather regale you with tales from when he serving in the military. But to know that he spent his life in its fullest, in service to his country, and fighting for his family, may be enough to elicit nostalgic recollections of the times you spent with him when he was still alive.
Nostalgia warms the body. One study even found interesting evidence to conclude that nostalgia is ‘triggered by coldness’ but ‘resulted in warmth.’ This study, by Xinyue Zhou and colleagues, showed that on colder days, participants reported higher instances of feeling nostalgic, and that this was due to discomfort with the temperature (what the researchers call ‘thermoregulatory discomfort’). In a series of follow-up studies, the researchers then asked participants to listen to nostalgia-inducing music, and found that when they did so, they also reported higher levels of bodily warmth, and perceived ambient temperature to be warmer. In their final study, the research team got participants to recall nostalgic events, and found that when they did so, they were able to immerse their hands in near-freezing water (at a bitingly cold 4°C) for longer than those in the comparison condition .
Nostalgia confers several psychological benefits. An increasing number of studies also demonstrate the psychological and well-being benefits of nostalgia. A series of experimental studies showed that when asked to recall nostalgic experiences, participants’ reported higher levels of perceived meaning in their own lives. In another study, nostalgic participants were also less likely to further search for meaning relative to participants in the comparison conditions. Participants feeling nostalgic were more likely to agree to statements such as, “I understand my life’s meaning” and “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose” . Beyond meaning-making and reminders of one’s life purpose, nostalgia can also serve a protective buffer against loneliness. Sampling a diverse range of participants which included undergraduate students, migrant children and factory workers, researchers found that nostalgia lowers the effects of loneliness, and also increased the perceptions of social support . Finally, studies also do show that when feeling nostalgic, individuals were more likely to make quicker positive attributions of themselves, and were less likely to engage in self-serving biases when receiving negative feedback on their task performance . These studies all show that we’ve come a long way from viewing nostalgia as disruptive, or detrimental to our well-being. Rather, nostalgic recollections and reflections can actually confer a psychological benefit – despite its trigger being tinged with negative emotion.
What are you nostalgic about? What are some of your most nostalgic memories and experiences? Perhaps reflecting on those events can serve as a reminder of who you are, and how far you have come; nostalgia does indeed help us narrate our pasts, helping us craft a coherent, and meaningful life story. And the more recent evidence too, suggests that this emotion may even help rejuvenate the present, if not craft more hopeful, significant futures.