Does Nostalgia Make You Happy or Sad?

The impact of nostalgia on your feelings depends on how it is triggered.

Posted Sep 09, 2020

Felipe Micaroni Lalli Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Felipe Micaroni Lalli Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I am writing this blog post during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have spent the last six months working from home, and most of that time, I've worked in one small room in my house for much of the day. I miss the days when I could walk around the University of Texas campus several times a day going to a class or a meeting.

Those feelings are nostalgia—a longing for something in the past.

What impact does nostalgia have on our sense of well-being?

This question was explored in a series of studies in a February 2020 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Newman, Matthew Sachs, Arthur Stone, and Norbert Schwarz.

These researchers start by pointing out that many studies of nostalgia ask participants to recall a past event about which they feel nostalgic. These studies suggest that looking back at the past tends to make people feel good.

But these studies do not tell us much about what happens when people feel nostalgic as a part of their daily life. To examine that question, the authors did two kinds of studies.

First, they developed a brief scale that measures differences among people in how often they feel nostalgic. This scale uses questions like “How nostalgic do you feel?” and “To what extent do you feel sentimental for the past?”

They had people give ratings of their overall degree of positive and negative feelings as well as the degree to which they felt inspired and having a sense of meaning in life. They also had these participants fill out the nostalgia measure as well as measures of the Big Five personality characteristics and the extent to which people are focused on goals to achieve positive outcomes (approach) or goals to avoid negative outcomes (avoidance).

The tendency to experience nostalgia was related both to a focus on avoidance as well as to the personality characteristic of neuroticism. In general, the tendency to experience nostalgia relates to the experience of negative feelings, depression, and regret. Higher levels of nostalgia are also related to a search for meaning in life.

This study suggests that people who rate themselves as more nostalgic tend to have more negative feelings and emotions than those who rate themselves as less nostalgic.

The second set of studies explored daily experiences of nostalgia. Participants completed a daily diary study in which they reported measures of well-being each day for two weeks and also rated how nostalgic they were on that particular day. Days in which people felt nostalgic tended to be those in which they felt bad.  

Because the study was done each day, it was possible to look at how one day affected another. Days on which people felt lonely tended to lead to nostalgia on the following day. Days on which people felt nostalgic were followed by days in which people tended to think about negative things and to experience negative feelings. These results suggest that nostalgia is triggered by a feeling of isolation and leads to negative feelings in the future.

So why have so many studies of nostalgia suggested that it creates positive feelings? The answer seems to be a difference between what happens when you ask people to be nostalgic versus what happens when nostalgia is triggered by something in their lives.

In a final study, the researchers asked people to think of an event that made them feel nostalgic (which they did at the beginning or end of the study). They described this event and then gave ratings of their overall well-being. In addition, these participants completed a seven-day diary study in which they gave ratings of well-being and were asked about an event that made them feel nostalgic that day. They also described the nostalgic event.

The researchers compared the level of positive and negative feelings people experienced on the day in which they were asked explicitly to think about a nostalgic experience and compared those to days on which people felt particularly nostalgic in the daily diary study. Asking people for a nostalgic experience made them feel more positive and less negative than they did on days in which they spontaneously felt nostalgic.

What is the source of that difference? Raters looked at the description of the events people remembered. When people were asked to think of a nostalgic event, that event was a more positive event from their life than the event people recalled when a situation triggered a feeling of nostalgia.

These studies suggest that nostalgia is a double-edged sword: If we try to look back at the past for events that make us feel nostalgic, we often think about positive things from our past that can lead to feelings of contentment and happiness. However, when life events trigger a feeling about the past, we often think about things that are not as positive, and that can have a negative impact on our sense of well-being that can last for a few days.

References

Newman, D.B., Sachs, M.E., Stone, A.A., & Schwarz, N. (2020). Nostalgia and well-being in daily life: An ecological validity perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(2), 325-347.