The Psychology of Nostalgia During COVID-19

Is escaping into the past such a bad thing?

Posted May 26, 2020

With the difficulty of the present moment and an uncertain future ahead, the past has never looked better. However, a fondness for the past runs counter to popular advice. We're commonly admonished not to "live in the past" and to "not let yesterday take up too much of today." 

For centuries, nostalgia was thought to be synonymous with depression. During the Thirty Years War, several Spanish soldiers were discharged from the army with nostalgic symptoms. The term nostalgia — formed from the Greek 'nostos' (homecoming), and 'algos' (pain) — was coined by the 17th-century Swiss physician, Johannes Hofer, who considered it to be a mental disorder. 

While such extreme attitudes towards nostalgia have since relaxed, nostalgia is still seen somewhat negatively. But is escaping into the past such a bad thing? Especially now? 

The Psychology of Memory and Nostalgia

When we go back to a previous time, we don't remember it exactly as it happened. Memory is our brain's attempt at connecting us with the past. Attempt is the key word here. When we have an experience, we don't have the record button on. And when we conjure up a memory, we're not hitting the replay button. Instead, memory is a highly inaccurate reconstruction. 

Photo by jisoo kim / UnSplash
Memory is a reconstruction
Source: Photo by jisoo kim / UnSplash

And when it comes to this nostalgic longing for the past, the reconstructive process of memory skews positive. Not all experiences in the past may have been positive, but when we look back in this way, we tend to think about very general periods, as opposed to particular details. We naturally paint our memories with a very broad brush, which, luckily for us, tends to gloss over the small negative details. 

In short, nostalgia is the warm glow of the past, conjured up into the present moment. 

The Psychological Benefits of Nostalgia

Engaging in nostalgia isn't just enjoyable. Research suggests that it also may be beneficial. For one, looking back in the past gives us a sense of continuity. It's odd to think that who we were in the past isn't really who we are now. We may think differently, feel differently, or act differently. Even biologically — most of our constituent cells aren't passed on beyond a few years. 

Ryan Parker / UnSplash
Nostalgia provides us with a sense of continuity
Source: Ryan Parker / UnSplash

As T. S. Eliot described it, "You are not the same people who left that station / Or who will arrive at any terminus." You wake up every morning as a slightly different entity, and yet memory stitches you together as a single consistent, coherent person. When this process breaks down, we feel a sense of discontinuity, and this is linked to negative life satisfaction. 

However, studies have found that people who frequently nostalgize have a greater sense of self-continuity. And that more generally, engaging in nostalgia fosters a stronger sense of meaning in one's life. Looking back helps us make sense of where we've been and how we've gotten to where we are. It helps us tell a meaningful story of our life; how all of these discrete events and experiences fit together in a coherent narrative. 

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Nostalgia can provide unexpected psychological benefits
Source: Laura Fuhrman / UnSplash

Engaging in nostalgia also appears to have direct benefits for mental health. Research has found that it reduces cortisol levels associated with the body's acute stress response. Moreover, in a study recently published in the journal Nature, the tendency to nostalgize was found to be a protective factor against depression and anxiety. Fascinatingly, this study found that recalling specific positive life experiences was key for individuals who had suffered early life trauma, suggesting that the benefits of positive memories are not limited to those with entirely cheery pasts. 

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Whether it's continuity, mental health, or sheer enjoyment, nostalgia can carry immense benefit. Beyond its instrumental value, there's solace in the indelible nature of previous experience. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, "No matter what, nobody can take away the dances you've already had." And in the present moment, these memories may be more important than ever.

This post originally appeared on the Consumer Behavior Blog, PopNeuro

References

Askelund, A.D., Schweizer, S., Goodyer, I.M. et al. (2019) Positive memory specificity is associated with reduced vulnerability to depression. Nat Hum Behav 3, 265–273 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0504-3

Beck, J. (2013) When Nostalgia Was a Disease, The Atlantic

Bluck, S., & Alea, N. (2008). Remembering being me: The self continuity function of autobiographical memory in younger and older adults. In F. Sani (Ed.), Self-continuity: Individual and collective perspectives (pp. 55-70). New York, NY: Psychology Press

Iyer, A., & Jetten, J. (2011). What’s left behind: Identity continuity moderates the effect of nostalgia on well-being and life choices. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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

Speer, M. E. & Delgado, M. R. Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nat. Hum. Behav. 1, 0093 (2017).

Tierney, J. (July 2013) What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows, The New York Times

Zadra, J.R., & Clore, G.L. (2011). Emotion and perception: the role of affective information. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Cognitive science, 2 6, 676-685