Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Familiar Force That Helped Get Us Through the Pandemic

How nostalgia has helped us get through tough pandemic times.

Key points

  • Throughout the pandemic, nostalgia and nostalgic products have skyrocketed.
  • One reason is that nostalgia can help us get through tough times.
  • Research shows that when people feel a dip in psychological well-being, nostalgia can serve to buffer or repair these negative effects.

Garlic. Onions. Ginger. Vinegar. Soy sauce. Bay leaf. Chicken. Whole black peppercorns. Banana blossoms. This is my mom’s recipe for chicken adobo, often considered the national dish of the Philippines. She makes it for me every time I’ve gone home to visit since going out on my own 20 years ago.

As soon as I open the front door of our house, the pungent aroma of this specialty is a wake-up call. Just like that, I once again feel like a 15-year-old at the dinner table, with my brother and I telling our parents about highlights from our school day.

Nostalgic Consumption Has Skyrocketed

Mounting research shows that many of us are feeling increasingly nostalgic. A Nielsen survey found that while viewing time for TV sitcoms dropped during the pandemic, viewing time for classic sitcoms dramatically increased. The number of minutes people watched “Friends” in the past year grew by 30 percent, “Roseanne” by 70 percent, and—my personal favorite—“Family Matters” by a whopping 392 percent.

Nostalgia Buffers Pandemic-Evoked Threats to Psychological Well-Being

This hearty serving of nostalgia may even have helped us survive the pandemic so far, as such longing glances in the rear-view mirror serve a valuable purpose. On the surface, nostalgia—defined by The New Oxford Dictionary as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past”—might sometimes seem to be a pervasive marketing gimmick to persuade consumers to purchase products.

But in my own research studying nostalgia over the years, I discovered that it’s more than aesthetics and reminders of simpler times. Rather, it’s an emotion that can help us in times of uncertainty such as the current pandemic. A recent surge of nostalgia research consistently reveals that nostalgia has multiple benefits for our psychological well-being, especially as a tool for coping when the going gets tough, as it most certainly has since early 2020.

No wonder. The pandemic has threatened our sense of safety and security both interpersonally and within ourselves. We have been unable to physically visit and spend time with loved ones and others, leaving us feeling lonely and socially disconnected.

The pandemic has also threatened our sense of identity and self-authenticity, the feeling that we are expressing our true selves through our behaviors. We could no longer follow the same routines and engage in the same activities and hobbies to the same extent. Remember those weekly meet-ups with your running club that instilled a sense that you were a runner and belonged to a community? These events contributed to your sense of self.

Nostalgia can serve as a remedy for such woeful disruptions of normalcy. I’ve conducted hundreds of nostalgia studies and many of my findings can explain our current penchant for this emotion. One set of studies revealed that reminding people of a time they felt inauthentic resulted in an increased preference for nostalgic products versus contemporary versions. My work suggests that nostalgia bridges our past and present selves, increasing our feelings of authenticity.

How Nostalgia Helps Us Feel Connected

One of the most reliable findings in my research with colleagues was that nostalgia promotes a sense of social support. When we reflect on nostalgic moments, we often think of meaningful times in our lives surrounded by close significant others, like birthdays and trips to the beach. I’ve found that people examining a nostalgic-themed Kodak advertisement featuring a family felt more socially supported than those examining a future-themed Kodak advertisement using the very same picture. In waxing nostalgic, our memories imbue us with a sense of social connection.

Nostalgia can clear away obstacles and friction toward going forward. It protects us from the pain of the present, whether because we lost a loved one or suffered from boredom, low-grade stress, or loneliness, and acts as a salve that helps us navigate toward an uncertain future. Nostalgia can power our efforts at self-care and self-improvement, promoting our psychological fitness and making us feel more optimistic.

The lure of nostalgia may feel especially strong in summer as we recall lazing around a beach, feasting on barbeque picnics, and camping out under the stars.

Eating my mother’s chicken adobo and watching “Family Matters” reminds me of junior high Friday nights chatting with friends and gossiping about Urkel. They connect me to my past, boosting, as my own research shows, my sense of self-authenticity.

So listen unabashedly to whatever bygone band exerts a gravitational pull on your heartstrings. Or buy that WrestleMania shirt that takes you back to a match you saw with your friends 20 years ago at Madison Square Garden. Sometimes nothing better helps you look ahead than looking back.

This article also appears in The Daily News.

References

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Nostalgia: A bittersweet emotion that confers psychological health benefits. In A. M. Wood & J. Johnson (Eds.), The Wiley handbook of positive clinical psychology (pp. 125–136). Wiley Blackwell.

advertisement