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The Dark Side of Nostalgia

Where is the line between constructive reminiscing and idealizing the past?

In my previous post, "Why Nostalgia: The Amazing Power of Reminiscing," I discussed the benefits of nostalgia both from a clinical standpoint and through reviewing some empirical studies on this increasingly interesting subject (not to a small degree thanks to a global pandemic that we are still living in).

But is there also a dark side to nostalgia? Where is the line between constructive reminiscing and idealizing or remaining stuck in the past? And to what degree is the role of nostalgia conscious or unconscious?

Nostalgia and Emotional Regulation

Engaging in nostalgia is an emotional regulation strategy. Studies have found that we reach for it when we are experiencing negative affect, and especially loneliness (Wildschut et al., 2016), social exclusion (Seehusen et al., 2013), and feelings of meaninglessness (Routledge, Wildschut, Sedikides, Juhl, & Arndt, 2012). In those occasions, reminiscing not only helps us feel more connected but also bolsters our own sense of self-regard through social bonds. In a way, nostalgia allows us to place ourselves back in a supportive social context in which we feel connected and important.

Some researchers (Stephan et al., 2014) have proposed that, overall, nostalgia modulates emotions by closing the loop between avoidance and approach. Namely, nostalgia is triggered when aversive stimuli (ones we would like to get away from—like feeling lonely, for example) are present. In response to them, it triggers positive emotions. In a way, it serves to restore our psychological homeostasis.

Embodied Cognition—The Role of the Unconscious

A series of empirical findings in the area of embodiment research highlight how nostalgia may be able to accomplish such regulation. You may have heard of embodied cognition as the theory that our thoughts are embodied (literally, in the body). We know, for instance, that holding a cup of warm liquid, as opposed to cold liquid, makes us rate a stranger as “warmer” (friendlier, more agreeable), and that we tend to walk slower after unscrambling anagrams related to the elderly (for the interested reader, I recommend the work of John Bargh and his colleagues).

Nostalgia, in particular, seems to unconsciously serve a thermoregulatory function. Zhou et al. (2012) found that nostalgia is triggered by coldness, and in turn predicts an increase in physical warmth. For instance, participants who were exposed to cold temperatures (cold days or a cold room) reported stronger nostalgia. In turn, once a state of nostalgia had been induced, participants demonstrated greater tolerance to noxious cold and a perception of the ambient temperature as warmer.

Another piece of evidence that suggests the regulatory role of nostalgia is activated and performed unconsciously is that it can easily be triggered by sensory stimulation. Zhou et al. (2012) used music to evoke nostalgia, while Reid et al. (2015) demonstrated how scent-evoked nostalgia triggered more positive emotions than any other non-nostalgic memories, including autobiographic memories. Nostalgia, then, achieves some of its regulatory function through also increasing physiological comfort. And all of this occurs below the threshold of our awareness. What could possibly go wrong?

The Dark Side of Nostalgia

I think of emotional regulation strategies as the spices we use to flavor our food. If you use the right amount at the right time, you end up with a perfectly balanced dish. Too much salt, vinegar, or habanero, however, and the meal becomes inedible (and sometimes even harmful). Reflecting on the past with the goal of fortifying social bonds, increasing positive self-regard, and bolstering one’s sense of meaning in life can undoubtedly offer significant benefits for well-being. However, when taken to an extreme, nostalgia can also, on the one hand, lead to unhelpful behaviors and negative consequences, and, on the other, prevent us from utilizing more helpful coping strategies.

The difference between helpful and harmful nostalgia is the difference between incorporating the positive emotions of reminiscing into the present versus renouncing the present for the sake of reinstating and perpetually reliving some moment in the past. Some models of nostalgia conceptualize it as a nuanced experience, in which positive emotions are central, while negative affect can feature peripherally (Hepper et al., 2013). I argue that it is possible that overindulgence in nostalgia, much like overuse of salt or pepper, causes the present moment to be only colored by the negative emotions, in favor of glorifying some moment in the past.

This can be both harmful for our present self and unrealistically omit the negatives of the past we are idealizing. Examples of this can be seen:

  1. At the intrapersonal level, where people alter their bodies surgically to keep themselves looking younger (or, at the very least maintain the illusion thereof), in the instances of hoarding, or in tracking down old partners via social media at 2 a.m.
  2. At the societal level, where they glorify some historical past, without acknowledging the many cultural and collective traumas of that past, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and other institutionalized human rights violations. (A particularly gruesome recent revelation was that of migrant women being sterilized at border detention camps, eerily reminiscent to the 40-year-long Tuskegee study in which African American men were told they were receiving free health care when, in reality, they were infected and not treated for syphilis, so the government could follow the course of the disease.)

Some Strategies for Healthier Coping

This is particularly important because, as I said above, this process of over-engagement in nostalgia and its impact happens unconsciously. What is more, since nostalgia is inherently oriented towards simplicity, and not complexity (we yearn for simpler times, unambiguous emotions, etc.), overuse of it as an emotionally regulatory strategy in a complex world will always backfire. It will also inherently disenfranchise (all over again) the groups who were collectively traumatized in the first place—the groups who may not have the luxury of reminiscing of “simpler, better times.”

While tackling the cultural meaning and perils of excessive nostalgia is beyond the scope of this article, at the personal level, there are things we can do to raise self-awareness and healthier coping.

As with any other unconscious process (cf. Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2019), the first step in correcting for the darker side of unconscious processes and harnessing their power for more adaptive functioning is to make the unconscious conscious. This necessitates confronting our own biases and beliefs, facing possible shame, hurt, and longing. While looking at old photo albums, reconnecting with friends, or watching '90s movies over the weekend may be helpful, I highly encourage the readers to also ask themselves the following questions, so as to encourage both a healthy utilization of nostalgia and to avoid overreliance on it at the expense of other emotional regulation strategies:

  1. What emotion am I after? In engaging in nostalgia, what former self-state am I seeking to recreate?
  2. How will this help me and also how can I stay rooted in the present while I also feel the positive emotions of reminiscing?
  3. Am I avoiding complex emotions? If so, what are they, and why are they so hard for me? Where else can I seek help in managing my emotions?

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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

Seehusen, J., Cordaro, F., Wildschut, T., Sedikides. C., Routledge, C., Blackhart, G. C.,... Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2013). Individual differences in nostalgia proneness: The integrating role of the need to belong. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 904 –908. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.07.020

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

Stephan, e. et al. (2014). The mnemonic mover: Nostalgia regulates avoidance and approach motivation. Emotion, 14(3), 545-561

Zhou, X. et al. (2012). Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Emotion, 12(4), 678-684

Hepper, E. G., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Ritchie, T. D., Yung, Y.-F., Hansen, N., Abakoumkin, G., Arikan, G., Cisek, S. Z., Demassosso, D. B., Gebauer, J. E., Gerber, J. P., González, R., Kusumi, T., Misra, G., Rusu, M., Ryan, O., Stephan, E., Vingerhoets, A. J. J., & Zhou, X. (2014). Pancultural nostalgia: Prototypical conceptions across cultures. Emotion, 14(4), 733–747

Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.

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