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Does Nostalgia Enhance Life’s Meaning?

Embracing nostalgia may be a valuable tool when life doesn't feel meaningful.

Key points

  • A recent study suggests that recalling nostalgic events may help people view life as more meaningful.
  • Nostalgia may help counter negative emotions by instilling hope for the future.
  • Devising nostalgia exercises for people who see their lives as meaningless could potentially be a useful intervention.

In their paper “The power of the past: Nostalgia as a meaning-making resource,” Clay Routledge and his colleagues mention how, historically, nostalgia (understood as sentimental longing for the past) did not enjoy a good reputation. It was once viewed as a cerebral disease. In another era, it was considered no less than a psychiatric condition.

However, Routledge and his colleagues suggest that nostalgia can contribute (among many others things) to maintaining and enhancing sensed meaning in life. Their paper describes three experiments.

Identifying the Connection Between Nostalgia and Meaning

In the first experiment, some participants were asked to write about a nostalgic event while other participants were asked to write about a desired future event. Then, all participants completed a questionnaire that measured the degree to which they sensed life as meaningful. (The questionnaire asked them to mark the degree to which they agree with claims such as “I have a good sense of what makes my life meaningful.”) Participants who wrote about a nostalgic event scored higher on sensed meaning than participants who wrote about a desired future event.

In the second experiment, some participants were again asked to write about a nostalgic event while others wrote about a positive experience that occurred in the week preceding the experiment. Then participants in both groups were asked to fill out a questionnaire that measured the degree to which they searched for meaning. (The questionnaire asked them to mark the degree to which they agree with claims such as “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” or “I am looking for something that makes my life feel meaningful.”)

Since people who lack sensed meaning are more disposed to search for meaning, lower degrees of searching for meaning indicate higher degrees of sensed meaning. Participants who wrote about a nostalgic event indeed scored lower on searching for meaning than participants who wrote about a positive experience, again indicating that nostalgia enhances sensed meaning more than the alternative.

In the third experiment, all participants were presented with a picture (Magritte’s absurd painting The Son of Man) that has been shown to undermine, to a small degree and temporarily, people’s sensed meaning in life. (Undermining people's sensed meaning in life to a high degree and for a long period of time would have been unethical, of course, since it would harm the participants in the experiment).

Some participants were asked to write about a nostalgic event and others were asked to write about a positive experience in the preceding week, and all participants completed the sensed meaning questionnaire. Again, those in the “nostalgia group” scored higher on sensed meaning than those in the "positive experience" group. Put differently, nostalgia mitigated the negative impact on sensed meaning more than did the alternative.

Routledge and his colleagues point out that it is possible that nostalgia isn’t helpful for everyone. For example, people who have negative attitudes toward the past might not be helped by it. Nevertheless, these experiments (among others) suggest that, for many people, nostalgia may be an important means for enhancing a sense of meaning in life.

Future research may examine whether these findings can lead to devising practical interventions, such as daily nostalgia exercises, for people who sense their lives as insufficiently meaningful.

Nostalgia May Instill Hope

It shouldn’t be surprising that nostalgia enhances meaning. When little or nothing at present seems meaningful, nostalgia reminds people that much has been meaningful in the past, which suggests that the future, too, could be meaningful. Nostalgic memories focus on valuable aspects in life and remind us that there are such, too. Nostalgic memories also focus on what is familiar at times people may feel alienated, and on what is authentic at times people may feel inauthentic.

The research also coheres with some philosophical discussions on meaning in life that suggest that to sense life as meaningful one doesn’t need to excel: “small” good moments are often what makes life meaningful.

References

Routledge, C., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Juhl, J., and Arndt, J. 2012. The power of the past: Nostalgia as a meaning-making resource. Memory 20(5): 452-460. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2012.677452.

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