More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Nostalgia is Good Medicine

Sad or lonely? Try a dose of nostalgia.

Think about the guy who loves to tell the story of when he scored the final touchdown in that championship game even though it was 15 years ago. Everyone knows this guy. Or think about the person that keeps the XM Radio dial firmly on the Sounds of the 90s station. Is that person you? Still diggin' that Nirvana? Or try contemporary fashions. Recently, the apparel I see advertised in magazines makes me feel like I need to bust out some parachute pants or acid washed jeans. Personally, I can't wait until the grunge-style flannels come back in. I am poised to act on that inevitable return to 90s fashions. Look at the recent onslaught of movies like Transformers and GI Joe or the remakes of Friday the 13th and the upcoming Nightmare on Elm Street. Glass bottles and aluminum cans are not the only things we recycle. We love the past and nostalgia is big business. But why?

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This is a question my colleagues and I started asking a few years ago. After dozens of laboratory and field studies, we now have some answers. Nostalgia is good psychological medicine.

Nostalgia promotes psychological well-being

When people wax nostalgic, they become happier. For example, in the laboratory, when people are asked to reflect on experiences, objects, or songs from the past that they are nostalgic about, positive mood increases. This makes sense because when we analyze the content of people's nostalgic episodes we find that they are mostly positive. It is true that nostalgia can be bittersweet (happiness with a tinge of sadness). However, the net result is positive. Nostalgia simply makes people happy.

Nostalgia is more than just a mood boost though. It also increases self-esteem and perceptions of meaning in life. This explains the championship game story phenomenon. Many nostalgic experiences are connected to personal accomplishments and momentous life events. Life is not one great success after another. Our daily existence can often be tedious and sometimes depressing. Using nostalgia, we can inject some meaning and excitement into life. Nostalgia involves conjuring up the experiences that stick out as worthwhile and fulfilling.

Nostalgia fosters feelings of belongingness

Nostalgia isn't just about the self. It is also about our relationships. When people engage in nostalgia, they feel more connected to others. For example, our studies find that most nostalgic episodes are social and having people engage in nostalgia makes them feel close to and loved by others. The past experiences, objects, movies, and music we love are often anchored in social contexts and thus remind us that we are able to form and maintain relationships and that people do care about us.

So when are we most nostalgic?

Based on the research I just described, it may not come as a surprise that people turn to nostalgia in situations that cause negative mood, loneliness, and life meaninglessness. Marketing and consumer research demonstrates that nostalgia can be directly induced by providing consumers with products they are nostalgic for (e.g., 80s-inspired clothing, music, and toys). However, it is when we are psychologically vulnerable or threatened that we naturally turn to nostalgia. So next time you feel a little down and alone, try nostalgia. It may be just what the doctor ordered. And don't be ashamed of keeping that championship game story in heavy rotation or the fact that you just dropped half of your monthly rent for prime Bon Jovi tickets. You may be reaping the psychological rewards of being in touch with your past.

For further readings on the psychology of nostalgia see:

Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2008). A blast from the past: The terror management function of nostalgia. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 132 - 140.

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia: past, present, and future. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 304 - 307.

Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 975 - 993.

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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