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A Sweet Past

Can nostalgic reverie be a good thing?: In search of a sense of continuity.

Take a minute and consider a ship that leaves the US and embarks on a journey to sail around the world. Let’s say it takes ten years to make this journey (it’s a very slow ship and makes lots of stops). Along the way, it undergoes many repairs: the side panels have to be replaced, the floorboards are swapped out for new ones, and so on and so on until eventually, by the time it returns to the US, all of the major pieces of the ship have been replaced. Here’s the big question: Is the ship that returned to the US the same ship that left the port ten years ago? On the one hand, if every single piece of the ship is different, then it simply has to be another ship altogether. But, on some intuitive level, it may feel as if this is in fact the same ship that set out on the journey ten years back.

To philosophers, this conundrum is known as Theseus’ paradox and it’s prompted a lot of deep thought and controversy ever since at least the first century, and for good reason – it’s a difficult question to answer. But if instead of thinking about a ship changing over time, you think about a person, and whether he or she remains the same or changes, things may become a little bit clearer.

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We’re motivated to think about ourselves as maintaining some level of continuity between who we were yesterday and who we are today (even if people change a little bit here and there). On an existential level, it can be downright scary to think that you are fundamentally a different person today from the person you once were. This feeling of “discontinuity” can arise from unfortunate life events such as a job layoff, a divorce, death of a loved one, etc. And, it can be maladaptive to experience a sense of discontinuity.

So how can feelings of discontinuity be repaired? How, in other words, can we make the link between who we once were and who we are today feel a bit more seamless? A sociologist, Fred Davis, suggested that a way to bridge the gap is by conjuring up a feeling of nostalgia. Most people are familiar with this emotional experience: as researchers Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, and colleagues have described it, nostalgia is a “sentimental longing for the past” that is mostly happy, but also tinged with sadness. When experiencing nostalgia, you may feel happiness thinking about what once was, but also a slight twinge of sadness when you recognize that certain aspects of your life, or life in general, are no longer present. To Davis, nostalgia is a feeling that arises precisely because something may not be right in the present – when an event occurs that produces a discontinuity in our lives, one way to make ourselves feel better, and more continuous, is by conjuring up a more pleasant past (even if that past wasn’t necessarily as positive as you make it out to be)[i].

So, is there any evidence that feeling nostalgia can actually boost continuity to one’s past self, or in Wildschut and Sedikides’ poetic phrasing, can “nostalgia grease the communicative pathways within selves”? To examine this question, the researchers first gave 60 adults a questionnaire that assessed how many times they had had a “disrupting” event in the past two years (for example, a change in living situation, change in financial situation, or a divorce). Research participants also completed a questionnaire that assessed how prone they were to feeling nostalgia. As might be expected, the more someone had experienced disrupting life events, the more likely they were to also experience frequent nostalgia.

In a follow-up study, Sedikides, Wildschut and their co-authors asked one group of participants to think about a past event that made them feel nostalgic. Another group simply thought about an ordinary event in their lives. After this initial task, participants rated their agreement with a number of statements that assessed self-continuity (for example, “The past and present flow seamlessly together” or “I am different from the person I used to be”). Thinking about a nostalgic event did in fact boost continuity with the past self, but there was an important caveat: this was only the case for people who were already feeling happy at the beginning of the research study. If someone is really feeling low, thinking back to a happy time in the past may ironically make the present seem particularly unpleasant by comparison.

These preliminary findings suggest that nostalgic reverie can indeed help, but only if we’re not feeling too low to begin with. This may seem complicated: although it’s possible that discontinuity leads to sadness, it’s not necessarily the case. Could a job layoff make you feel disconnected from who you once were? Probably. Could it also make you mope around and feel sad all the time? Maybe, but maybe not: there are still other sources of happiness. In a scenario like this, feeling nostalgic might help.  

What remains to be seen, however, is whether nostalgic reveries can help people who are actually experiencing a sense of discontinuity in their lives (the group of adults in the research study may or may not have been experiencing disruptive life events). Or, whether or not there needs to be a limit to just how much nostalgic thinking one does: too much may make the contrast between the past and the present too stark, but just the right amount could smooth the connection between the past and present self.

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[i] Note that in an earlier post, I wrote that one way people make themselves feel better about who they are today is by putting down the past self. But making the past self out to be a chump just so that the present self can be a champ represents a subtle but important distinction from wanting to maintain continuity with the past.

Hal E. Hershfield, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.

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