A reporter once asked me if nostalgia could be used to improve physical fitness programs.  The idea was that if nostalgia involves mentally travelling back in time then maybe nostalgia would make people feel and act more youthful. And maybe this would make exercise more fun and effective.  I told her that this possibility was certainly consistent with the research on nostalgia.

As I have written about in past posts, study after study shows that nostalgia is psychologically energizing. For example, writing about an experience that makes one feel nostalgic or listening to nostalgic music increases positive mood, feelings of belongingness, self-esteem, meaning in life, and a general sense of optimism. So it is not a stretch to imagine that nostalgia could be utilized in exercise programs. For instance, a workout music mix could be created containing a list of favorite songs from one’s youth. Or the activity itself could rely on nostalgic experiences (e.g., adult dodgeball leagues). You get the idea.

Our lab has now found more compelling evidence in support of this possibility in a series of experiments we call the “fountain of youth” studies.  Essentially, we tested and found evidence for the assertion that people feel younger after engaging in nostalgia.

Pixabay, free images
Source: Pixabay, free images

The Soundtracks of Our Lives

In our first study, we recruited participants ranging in age from 18 to 62. To induce nostalgia, we had half of the participants conduct a YouTube search for a song that makes them feel nostalgic. The other half (our control group) conducted a YouTube search for a song they enjoy but only recently discovered. Participants in both groups listened to the song they chose. So all participants listened to music, and presumably music they like. But for one group, the music made them feel nostalgic. Participants then completed a questionnaire assessing how old they currently feel. Do they feel their age, older, or younger?

Age is Just a Number

Results indicated that as people approach middle age, nostalgia makes them feel younger than their actual age. Specifically, for participants who were 42 or older, listening to the nostalgic song, compared to a recently discovered song, led to a significant decrease in how young they felt.

In our second experiment we recruited adults ranging in age from 19 to 72 and had them spend a few minutes writing about a memory from their past that makes them feel nostalgic or an ordinary memory. They then responded to a question concerning how youthful they currently feel and were asked to write down a number reflecting the age they feel, regardless of their actual age.

The results were similar. This time, for participants 38 and older, nostalgia increased perceptions of youthfulness and decreased the age in years they reported feeling.

Going Back to High School

Since the effect of nostalgia on youthfulness seemed to be emerging around the age of 40, in our final study we recruited adults 40 years of age or older. In this experiment, we had all participants bring to mind and write about an experience from high school. Critically, one group was instructed to specifically bring to mind a high school experience that makes them feel nostalgic and the other group was told to bring to mind an ordinary or mundane experience from high school.

Next, participants again responded to questions assessing perceptions of youthfulness. In addition, they responded to questions assessing perceptions of their health, confidence regarding physical fitness, and optimism about their future health.

As in the first two studies, nostalgia made people feel more youthful. Both groups thought about high school, but people in the group that brought to mind a nostalgic memory from high school felt significantly more youthful than those in the control group.

Even cooler, this feeling of youthfulness led to more positive evaluations regarding one’s health, greater confidence in one’s physical fitness, and a higher level of optimism about one’s future health.  In other words, nostalgia made people feel younger, which appeared to give them a more positive outlook about their health and fitness.

Young at Heart

Young people generally feel youthful because they are young.  Our research demonstrates that nostalgia is one way that people remain young at heart as they get older. Nostalgia is like a psychological fountain of youth. And by making people feel younger and more optimistic, it might actually contribute to positive health outcomes. This is a research direction we plan to pursue soon. Now I need to go jam on some early Nine Inch Nails and fire up my Nintendo.

Reference:

Abeyta, A. A. & Routledge, C. (in press). Fountain of youth: The impact of nostalgia on youthfulness and implications for health. Self & Identity.

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About the Author

Clay Routledge

Clay Routledge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

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