Longing for Nostalgia

I've got that old feeling.

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Negative vs. Positive Pasts

I've often wondered about this topic and how it may relate to people who have not had picture-perfect pasts, but whom seem to get nostalgic for their childhoods or past lives regardless. Is this due to the fact that people just grow comfortable with whatever they're familiar with? Even if that reality is not very pleasant? (Think about the movie Shawshank Redemption, where the old librarian-inmate is released from prison after many decades, and actually longs for his old life in prison because that had become his "home").

Negative vs. Positive Pasts

You make an interesting and important observation. Research suggests that nostalgia stems at least in part from the need for affiliation. When a person is uprooted or displaced, their sense of belonging in a community can be threatened or diminished. In such cases, nostalgia helps to preserve the feeling of being socially connected. Your example of the inmate released from prison after decades illustrates such a situation. Other examples are people displaced from their home countries during war or even students away from home for the first time. Once people develop new social networks the intensity of longing for the past home often weakens or becomes relegated to select trigger occasions (such as anniversaries).

Some research suggests that nostalgia is also associated with more favorable perceptions of one's childhood. How a person thinks about the past can be as important as the actual attributes of that past. We can learn from adversity, and we can enjoy personal growth after surviving negative events. Thank you for your insightful comment.


You make very good connections to what people miss most and what causes them to be most nostalgic. I, personally, have found ease in connecting to what you've written. Through my own life, I've found myself often feeling a sense of nostalgia towards the past, more specifically to the loved ones that I've lost, or to the innosence and joy that childhood brought me. However, I do have one question: what would bring about nostalgia for a person who's childhood and adolescence may have been destroyed through, lets say, a war or mental and physical abuse? Would, in those cases, nostalgia be something nonexistent or rather shaped in a different form?

nostalgia and a traumatic past

Thank you so much for your feedback and for your most interesting question. Overall, there is an association between how happy a person feels his or her childhood had been and how prone they are to being nostalgic. There is considerably less research on the question you pose about people who had suffered adverse conditions or abuse during childhood. Clinical and historical accounts have illustrated, however, how nostalgia can play an important role in such cases, despite how counterintuitive that is. For example, in the 1990s, Hertz found that nostalgic reminiscence helped elderly Holocaust survivors to maintain or restore a sense of self-identity. Similarly, Hirsch and Spitzer (2002) have described the benefits of nostalgia recounted by two Holocaust survivors who visited their homeland with their daughter. Reminiscence and narration enabled them to reconnect with both the pleasurable and the traumatic in the past and to help their daughter in her search for meaning as a child of exiles. In dealing with the complexities of their experience, the authors introduced qualifiers to distinguish types of nostalgia. They referred to conflicting feelings aroused by remembering joy and horror in the past as “ambivalent nostalgia.” Their daughter’s yearning to connect with a past experienced only second-hand through her parents’ memories was labeled as “rootless nostalgia.” Hirsch and Spitzer concluded that the journey engendered “an encounter between generations, between past and present, between nostalgic and traumatic memory.”
Clearly, nostalgia for a traumatic past is more complex than nostalgia for a past remembered as happy, but it may serve important benefits.
For more information you can consult the following readings.

Batcho, K. I. (2013, May 6). NOSTALGIA: The Bittersweet History of a Psychological Concept. History of Psychology. 16, 165-176.

Hertz, D. G. (1990). Trauma and nostalgia: New aspects on the coping of aging Holocaust survivors. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 27, 189-198.

Hirsch, M., & Spitzer, L. (2002). “We would not have come without you”: Generations of Nostalgia. American Imago, 59(3), 253-276.

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Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.


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