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For Neurotic People, Even Life's Good Times Can Seem Bad

A new study suggests how neurotics think back on the good and bad times of life.

When you think back on the times of your life, you most likely alternate between those that were good and those that weren’t. To comfort yourself when you’re feeling down, chances are you’ll look back on the good times to try to put the focus either on those pleasant experiences or on how you were able to overcome the bad times that tested your resilience.

Whatever bad times you had in the past, there is a good chance that many of them don't even come close to what you’re going through now. As with other large-scale traumatic events, COVID-19 is putting a strain on the adaptive abilities of millions of people. If you’re lucky, the worst of these strains involves a few semi-minor inconveniences such as not being able to go out with friends, take in a ball game or movie, or go shopping whenever you feel like it. Clearly, the worst situations involve the physical aspects of the illness threatening, or taking, the life of family. You may also face the social and economic impacts of losing your job or delaying your schooling. If you’re a healthcare worker, being on the frontlines of the illness brings its own unique set of challenges.

With all that you're experiencing now, will there ever be a time that you can look back on 2020 without reliving the worst parts of it? How will 2020 go down in your personal history book? New research by Saarland University’s Julius Frankenbach and colleagues (2020) offers some suggestion of how your future self may remember the present and whether nostalgia for the current times will be possible.

Interestingly, as the German researchers note, nostalgia was first defined by the Greeks as a negative emotion derived from the words “nostos” (homecoming) and “álgos,” (pain). However, contemporary psychologists see nostalgia “as a useful resource that individuals recruit to counter adversity.” If so, then this revamped view of nostalgia would suggest that, as with other past painful events in your life, you could theoretically be able to look back on 2020 by giving yourself a virtual pat on the back for having made it through this unusually difficult year.

Indeed, according to previous research cited by Frankenbach and his coauthors, “nostalgia inductions” that trigger thoughts about the past can actually bolster people’s positive emotions. Contrary to its Greek meaning, furthermore, people who delve into past experience often focus on what went right instead of what went wrong.

There are exceptions, however, to this growth-enhancing use of nostalgia. The bittersweet nature of nostalgia, with its potential to unleash negative memories of the past, means that people high in neuroticism should, as Frankenbach et al. point out, pull out the negatively valenced memories of their past when they dwell on it. Even though they may objectively have had the same ratio of positive to negative events in their lives, the highly neurotic may selectively access the ones that are inherently more painful. In the process, they could simultaneously yearn for the past, wishing they could return to an earlier time.

Neuroticism, by its very definition, involves a tendency toward habitually high levels of worrying with, as the authors define it, a “tendency to engage repetitively and persistently in mental problem solving of uncertain or unresolved difficulties or challenges.” People high in neuroticism, furthermore, experience unusually high levels of vulnerability to stress.

With this background in mind, when people high in neuroticism look back on 2020, they should be particularly likely to wish they could be back in 2019, before their lives were turned upside down by the pandemic. People low in neuroticism, by contrast, would eventually be able to think back on the turmoil caused by the pandemic and regard it as the ultimate test of their inner strength. They might even see themselves as comparable to the “Greatest Generation,” who survived World War II, in defining themselves as the “COVID Generation.”

To test the role of neuroticism in tempering the potential benefits of nostalgia, the German authors conducted a meta-analysis in which they examined a large number of studies using a specific format. The 19 studies involving over 3,500 participants all shared the features of using an experimental design to manipulate a nostalgia induction, measuring the trait of neuroticism, and looking at an outcome that could be classified as serving a self-oriented or social psychological function.

Imagine yourself as being in a study such as the ones identified by Frankenbach and colleagues, in which you’re in the group receiving a nostalgia induction. You would be asked to recall a nostalgic event from your past (vs. an ordinary event) and to think about how it makes you feel. Then, you would write down several keywords that come to mind in relation to that event as well as a brief paragraph in which you describe the experience. Prior to this event recall, the experimenters would prime your mood by playing songs from a past era or by reading the words from one of those popular songs from the past. Depending on your age, such nostalgia-inducing songs might include anything from The Beatles to those of some of the '90s boy bands or rock groups.

The research team grouped the effects of the nostalgia induction into the three categories of “self-oriented” (raising your self-esteem), “existential” (giving meaning to your life), and “self-continuity” (feeling a connection between your past and present self). When the authors examined the correlations between personality scores and those three outcomes, there were a host of negative effects for the highly neurotic, including lower self-esteem, inspiration, optimism, self-continuity, meaning in life, and social connectedness. Those high in neuroticism also tended to experience higher negative and lower positive affect following the nostalgia induction.

Surprisingly, there was no difference between people high and low in neuroticism on the effect of the nature of the induction itself (i.e. self-oriented vs. control). This finding suggests, as the authors note, that people high in neuroticism “were equally impaired when recalling nostalgic and ordinary autobiographical events.” If you're high in neuroticism, in other words, it may not matter whether what you recall from the past had something to do with you directly (such as your graduating from high school) or was a general event happening at the time (such as a national election).

To sum up, when you think back on 2020, your own recall may very well depend on your overall tendency to focus on the negative instead of what could be gleaned that reflects positively on your own inner resources. The German findings suggest that, even though there is a tremendous amount to worry about right now, these events will always be part of your life story. Tapping into your own resilience, with time, could be what gives you the strength to find fulfillment.

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Frankenbach, J., Wildschut, T., Juhl, J., & Sedikides, C. (2020). Does neuroticism disrupt the psychological benefits of nostalgia? A meta‐analytic test. European Journal of Personality. doi:10.1002/per.2276