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Why Nostalgia? The Amazing Power of Reminiscing

Connecting to positive past experiences has surprising benefits for well-being.

I was recently asked to discuss the benefits of nostalgia for a New York Times article on the topic, and then for a second article for The Intelligent Collector. This got me thinking: Everyone, it seems, is interested in how and why nostalgia may be making a return (pun intended) in a society that was so future-focused and goal-oriented before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why are we feeling more nostalgic these days? Why are we feeling more drawn to '90s movies and music or looking at old photo albums? Is it healthy to engage in nostalgia or not?

As a psychodynamically trained trauma psychologist, I had a few thoughts to contribute to the conversation. As a researcher, I also turned to empirical studies and learned a few very interesting findings about the benefits of nostalgia.

1. Nostalgia is usually a yearning for our past selves, not just for a time and place. We crave to feel the positive emotions that we felt, to connect to the version of ourselves we were at the time we are reminiscing about. Perhaps we felt more carefree, perhaps we felt joy or a sense of accomplishment, perhaps we felt loved and more connected to our loved ones.

In essence, when I reminisce about that summer before I permanently moved to the United States, it is not just the beautiful sunsets over the Black Sea that I miss. It is my sense of self at the time—excited for a new chapter full of possibilities, deeply connected to my friends, I spent every day of the week with an anticipation of a long separation, happy.

2. Concrete objects or items from the past (movies, songs, collections) serve as transitional objects. A transitional object is an item that a child uses for comfort and feelings of safety. It is called transitional because it is thought of as a representation of the child-caregiver bond. As such, it helps children transition from consistently seeking direct contact with the caregiver to learning how to self-regulate.

Similarly, objects of nostalgia, serve as vehicles for connecting with our former selves and affective states that we yearn for. They provide a direct link to the emotions we are seeking to experience in real time. In turn, they also help soothe us and regulate the negative emotions we may be experiencing (sadness, loneliness, fear).

From the research literature, I also stumbled on a few curious findings. It appears that when we are under stress or feeling lonely, we may be wired to automatically and unconsciously reach for nostalgia.

3. A series of studies by Wildschut and colleagues (2016) found that we naturally tend to reach for nostalgia when we feel negative affect, and more specifically loneliness. If you are wondering why we are all of a sudden talking about nostalgia during COVID times, this may be the answer. Social isolation during long months of quarantine has led many of us to feel lonely, and our emotional regulatory systems are trying to correct for this by evoking memories of happier times when we felt more connected.

4. The same researchers also discovered that the direct mechanism through which nostalgia works to improve mood and generate positive affect is, in fact, through bolstering social bonds and increasing positive self-regard. To sum up, our lonely selves reminisce about our connected selves. And, what is more, it is through those longed-for connections that we feel better about ourselves. During times of stress and forced social withdrawal, then, it makes sense that nostalgia may also help combat feelings of helplessness and decreased self-efficacy.

5. Similarly, Routledge and colleagues (2011) found that engaging in nostalgia helps increase our sense of meaning in life (through, you guessed it, feelings of social connectedness) and helps disrupt the link between the perceived threat to our sense of meaning and our well-being. In other words, nostalgia probably helped you during those long lonely first days of the quarantine, when you started questioning what if your meaning in life and had trouble adjusting to the idea of a new (very far-from-normal) normal.

In sum, it appears that the answer to the question "Is nostalgia healthy?" is, generally, yes. For more on the unconscious processes that underlie its impact (hint, you may want to brush up on the concept of embodied cognition here), as well as when nostalgia may not be helpful or even possible, come back next week!

References

Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 975–993. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.91.5.975

Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Hart, C. M., Juhl, J., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., & Schlotz, W. (2011). The past makes the present meaningful: Nostalgia as an existential resource. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(3), 638–652. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024292

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