Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

What Does Nostalgia Do?

Nostalgia can have a positive influence on your outlook.

When people get nostalgic, they are living in the past.  In those moments, the past seems rosy, and often as more positive than the present.  Nostalgia can be induced by thinking about past events, by going to places you have experienced before, or even by hearing a song that brings back memories of things that happened. 

Is nostalgia a good thing or a bad thing for people?  It clearly seems to make people feel better in the moment. Any time you focus on a positive memory, you tend to get a boost of positive feeling.  But, are there any other positive benefits of nostalgia?

This issue was explored in a paper in the November 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Wing-Yee Cheung, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, Erica Hepper, Jamie Arndt, and Ad Vingerhoets.  They suggested that nostalgia may actually make people more optimistic about the future.

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In one study, the researchers simply had college students write a short essay about a past event that made them feel nostalgic or a past event that seemed ordinary.  Ratings suggested that making people write about a nostalgic event made people feel more nostalgic and also slightly more positive than writing about an ordinary event.  Using a program called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software developed by my colleague Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues, the researchers analyzed the words used in the essays.  LIWC counts different kinds of words that appear in text including words relating to optimism.  People writing about nostalgic events contained more words relating to optimism than people writing about ordinary events. 

In another study, participants instructed to think about a past event that made them feel nostalgic rated themselves as feeling more optimistic than those instructed to think about an ordinary event.  Optimism increased above and beyond any influence that thinking about a nostalgic event had on people’s positive feelings in general.

The remaining studies in this paper examined why nostalgia makes people feel more optimistic.  These studies used internet surveys in order to have a broader age range of participants.  They induced nostalgia in some participants by having them listen to songs or read song lyrics that were associated with nostalgic feelings (for those participants). 

As in the other studies, participants who were induced to feel nostalgic also expressed more optimism of the future.  This optimism is related to two other factors.  First, nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others.  This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves.  That increase in self-esteem then increases feelings of optimism. 

This set of studies suggests that nostalgia can play a beneficial role in people’s lives.  When times are tough, it may seem as though things may never get better.  By focusing on positive times from the past, though, people may help themselves to be more connected to others, which can give them the resources to be more optimistic about the future.

A limitation of this study is that these effects were all statistically reliable, but they were rather small overall.  People got more optimistic, but not by a lot.  It remains to be seen how much of a practical impact nostalgia may have on people’s day-to-day behavior.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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