The Prospective Power of Savoring

Does paying close attention to the present fuel nostalgia for it in the future?

Posted Apr 19, 2018

Hal McDonald
Source: Hal McDonald

On a balmy summer evening a few days before she left for college to begin her senior year, my daughter looked out the open car window at the soft purple twilight rushing by and said, “I’m going to save this moment in my memory so that I can think of it when I get stressed out at school.”

Most of us have, at one time or another, similarly attempted to take a mental “snapshot” of a happy moment so that we may look back on it with pleasure at some later stage of our lives.  As intuitively logical as this stratagem for future enjoyment may seem, however, the ultimate success or failure of such attempts is difficult to determine.  Nostalgia being a backward-looking emotional experience, our enjoyment of any past experience requires us first to actually remember it, and the capricious nature of autobiographical memory as often as not makes us forget to remember that we wanted to remember something in the first place.  Still, whenever we are in the midst of some particularly enjoyable moment, we often find ourselves, like my daughter, making a concentrated effort to remember it so that we can enjoy that experience once again later on as a nostalgic memory.  But does this intentional act of remembrance really work?  Is it possible to willfully create, in the present, a nostalgic memory to be enjoyed in the future?

The question of how much conscious control we have over the creation of our nostalgic memories is neither a trivial nor a purely academic one.  Psychological research over the last couple of decades has found that, in addition to the pleasure it brings, nostalgia offers a number of benefits to our mental and even our physical well-being, so being able to intentionally create nostalgic memories for future recollection could provide a reliable means of accessing these benefits.  A recent study in England attempted to address this question of conscious control, and to explore how the answer is related to one of the demonstrated psychological benefits of nostalgia—optimism.

Biskas et al. conducted a series of three studies investigating the role that “savoring” (defined as “deep attention to a present experience in order to capture it, retain it, and fully appreciate it”) actually plays in the creation of nostalgic memories.  In the first study, designed to determine whether savoring a past event had led to present nostalgia for it, participants were asked to write about a positive memory from their past, and then indicate to what degree they savored the event when they first experienced it.  Once this had been determined, they were asked to bring the event to mind and indicate the degree of nostalgia they felt upon looking back at it.  As anticipated, retrospective reports of savoring were positively related to present nostalgia.  The more the participants said they had savored an event in the past, the more nostalgia they felt for it in the present.

The second study similarly explored the relation between past savoring and present nostalgia, but focused on a general time period rather than a specific event, and was conducted in a context that naturally prompted thoughts about that time period.  The researchers interviewed college alumni during an alumni event, asking them how much they had savored the time they had spent in college, and how much nostalgia they currently felt for that time period.  As in the first study, the degree to which participants reported savoring their college years was positively related to the degree of nostalgia they reported feeling for that period.

Looking forwards instead of backwards, the third study tested the association between savoring of a present time period that was about to end and subsequent nostalgia for that time period in the future.  The researchers approached college students on their graduation day and asked them how much they had been savoring their final year of college up to that point, and then contacted them again several months later to ask how nostalgic they felt for their college experience, now in their past.  Once again, the degree to which participants consciously savored the time period in question was directly related to the amount of nostalgia they later felt for that time period.

Whether viewing the relationship between savoring and nostalgia retrospectively or prospectively, all three studies found that conscious and attentive enjoyment of an experience in the present creates the raw material out of which future nostalgic memories are made.  And consistent with earlier research on the emotional benefits of nostalgia, the nostalgic memories reported in these three studies were positively associated with optimism.  The college students who reported nostalgia in regard to memories of experiences they had previously savored also reported having a more optimistic outlook on the future. Biskas et al. suggest that savoring might thus “aid emotion regulation and, as such, improve well-being.”

Many of our most potent nostalgic experiences are purely involuntary, triggered by some chance sensory stimulus in our environment—a familiar smell, for example, or an old song we haven’t heard for a long time.  This means that we have limited control over our nostalgia and the many demonstrated benefits to our well-being that it offers.  The finding that savoring our present experiences is associated with later nostalgic memories suggests we might have a little bit more control over our nostalgia than we thought—if not, perhaps, with the "when" and "where" of our retrieval of these memories, at least with the amount of raw material available to be retrieved.

When my daughter looked out the car window last summer and savored the blissful calm of the twilight in order to enjoy the memory later in the year, it turns out that she had the right idea.  There’s a good chance she actually did create a future nostalgic memory on that occasion, just as she intended.  And with final exam period rapidly approaching, she’ll soon have the opportunity to find out if it provides her with the much needed moment of stress relief she hoped it would.

References

Marios Biskas, Wing-Yee Cheung, Jacob Juhl, Constantine Sedikides, Tim Wildschut & Erica Hepper (2018) A prologue to nostalgia: savouring creates nostalgic memories that foster optimism, Cognition and Emotion,DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2018.1458705

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