The Psychology of Nostalgia

New studies show why we reminisce about the past.

Posted Mar 02, 2020

The song “Memory” from the musical Cats is one of the most popular show tunes of our time. It’s a melancholic reminiscence of bygone glory days:

Memory, all alone in the moonlight,
I can smile at the old days,
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was.
Let the memory live again.

Despite the title, this is really a song about nostalgia, that bittersweet emotion we experience when we think back to a past experience that was better than the life we’re currently leading.

Over the past decade, a small literature on the psychology of nostalgia has developed. Remarkably, the lyrics of “Memory” perfectly describe the nature of nostalgia as evinced by experimental and observational studies. Specifically, research shows that people engage in nostalgic reverie when they’re feeling low in an attempt to boost their mood and self-confidence.

Experimental evidence indicates that nostalgia is experienced as an overwhelmingly positive emotion. It has the effect of boosting one’s mood as well as increasing a sense of meaning in life. It also raises self-esteem and optimism for the future. However, University of Southern California psychologist David Newman and colleagues argue that these effects may be due more to the experimental setup than to the true nature of nostalgia.

In a typical laboratory study, research participants are first asked to reminisce on a positive personal memory. Often the prompts include phrasing such as “the happiest or most memorable event of your life.” Afterward, the participants respond to questionnaires or undergo other procedures intended to measure their mood, self-esteem, self-confidence, optimism, and future orientation. The researchers generally find the positive results they’re looking for.

However, as Newman and colleagues point out, such studies tell us nothing about the nature of nostalgia in everyday life. To address this issue, they conducted a series of studies using a technique known as experience sampling. This method enables psychologists to get snapshots of their participants’ lives in real-time.

In studies using experience sampling, participants first download an app to their smartphone that pings them at random intervals throughout the duration of the study, typically a week or longer. Each time they receive a text message, the participants are asked to complete a brief survey in which they report what they are doing, thinking, and feeling at that particular moment. This method avoids memory biases that inevitably arise from later recollections of events.

In the key study that Newman and colleagues recently published, research participants were pinged at eight random times during the day (between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.) for a week. Each time, they reported where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with. They also responded to questions that assessed their current mood, how meaningful they found their lives to be at that moment, and their momentary level of optimism. Additionally, they reported any nostalgia they were experiencing at that time.

This study yielded two key outcomes. The first finding was that people felt more nostalgic when they were with family and friends or when they were eating than they did when they were at work or school.

One possibility is that family, friends, and food all serve as what psychologists call “retrieval cues.” These are items in the current environment that trigger memories. People can use retrieval cues intentionally, as for example when they post a to-do list on the refrigerator door. But retrieval cues can also be unintentional, as for instance when a whiff of apple pie aroma reminds you of your grandmother.

Another possibility is that conversations with family and friends and at mealtimes may include frequent mentions of past experiences together. Such discussions then would naturally lead to nostalgic reverie, either privately to oneself or as a shared emotion with the group. Think for yourself about what conversations are like when you’re in these situations.

The second key finding was that people were more likely to experience nostalgia when they were feeling depressed than when they were in a happy mood. At first glance, this result appears to contradict the outcomes of induced nostalgia in the laboratory, where remembering happy events from the past led to a boost in mood. However, more careful consideration of how this study was conducted shows us something important about the nature of nostalgia in everyday life.

Experiments are designed to get at cause-and-effect relationships. It does this by comparing responses under different conditions. People who were first asked to recall happy memories later reported more positive emotions than did those who were asked to recall mundane memories instead. When the study is structured in this way, we can conclude that nostalgic reverie caused a boost in mood.

However, the study by Newman and colleagues was correlational in nature. Participants weren’t divided into separate conditions and treated differently. Rather, at each measurement, each respondent reported on their current mood and whether they felt nostalgic. And what the researchers found was that nostalgia and low mood tend to co-occur.

It could be that nostalgia leads to negative emotions. But it could also be that people engage in nostalgia when they’re feeling low. After all, experimental studies show that nostalgic reverie boosts mood. Maybe people resort to nostalgia to make themselves feel a little better when they’re down. This second possibility seems to me to reflect the common way of thinking about nostalgia, and it certainly fits with the theme conveyed by the lyrics of the song “Memory.”

To see if they could find a hint of a causal relationship between nostalgia and mood, Newman and colleagues also performed a time-lag analysis. That is, they also correlated each instance of nostalgia with mood later that day and the next day. Mood tended to remain low throughout that time period. This suggests that nostalgia is either ineffective at boosting mood or that it even causes feelings of depression.

However, I think there’s one more possibility. Namely, people use nostalgia as a palliative to dampen sadness, much as the singer of “Memory” does. In a similar vein, we take a flu medicine to reduce the severity of the symptoms, but it still doesn’t restore us to our normal selves. Likewise, we should expect people to continue in their depressive state after engaging in nostalgic reverie. They still feel bad—just not as bad as they would have otherwise.

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: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 118, 325-347.