As I have discussed in past posts, a growing body of research identifies nostalgia as an important psychological resource. When people reflect nostalgically on the past, they bring to mind cherished life experiences that typically involve close others (friends, family, romantic partners). As a result, revisiting these experiences via nostalgia contributes positively to psychological well-being: nostalgia tends to make people feel happy, loved, meaningful, and optimistic.
Much of my own research on nostalgia has focused on the existential benefits of mentally travelling back in time to revisit personally treasured life experiences. Studies I have conducted, for example, demonstrate that when people feel like their lives lack meaning or purpose, a little trip down memory lane serves to restore perceptions of meaning and, more generally, enhance psychological health. Nostalgia reassures people that their lives have been filled with meaningful experiences.
A recent set of studies led by Dr. Wijnand A P van Tilburg, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, further highlights the meaning-making power of nostalgia. In this work, the researchers examined the potential for nostalgia to counter boredom. Studies indicate that boredom inspires people to search for meaning. That is, when people are bored, they are motivated to seek out opportunities to engage in more meaningful or personally rewarding activities. Considering that research had already demonstrated that people find nostalgia to be a meaningful activity, van Tilburg and his research team proposed that boredom would increase the search for meaning which would in turn increase nostalgia.
And this is precisely what they found. When research participants reported high levels of boredom or were given a boring task by researchers, they scored higher on a questionnaire assessing the desire to find meaning in life. They also scored higher on measures of nostalgia and a subsequent measure of perceived meaning in life. That is, after completing a boring task, participants became more nostalgic and this increased nostalgia was associated with increased perceptions of meaning in life. Nostalgia countered the effects of boredom on meaning. Boredom decreases meaning and nostalgia restores it.
This research highlights yet another way nostalgia contributes to adaptive psychological functioning. Sometimes life is boring. Life can’t be a party every day. However, nostalgia reminds us that we have had personally fulfilling and meaningful life experiences. And these reminders are important because they let us know that we will probably have these types of experiences again in the future. Nostalgia is not just about revisiting a meaningful past. History tends to repeat itself. Nostalgia reminds us of this fact and thus lets us know that current boredom will not last forever. In this way, by focusing us on the past, nostalgia gives us something to look forward to in the future.
Van Tilburg, W. A. P.; Igou, E. R.; & Sedikides, C. (2013). In search of meaningfulness: Nostalgia as an antidote to boredom. Emotion, 13, 450 – 461.