It doesn’t take more than a few notes before we’re sent back — the random shuffle on our old iPod plays a song that we immediately tie to THAT night, THAT moment before it all went down. With little guidance from our own cognitive machinations, we’re singing along, calling old friends, and fully transported into our past selves — a process we commonly call nostalgia. And while nostalgia is a near-universal experience for people, it has only recently been studied in such a way to let us know how it works and how it can benefit us.
The common definition of nostalgia is an emotional feeling occurring when we recall something from the past that was positive but is now gone.
Historically, nostalgia has been thought of as a negative experience, one that weakens the knees. In Stalin’s army, nostalgia prone soldiers were executed.
Early psychologists also did not render nostalgia in positive light. I found an early review article on nostalgia, dated 1941. The abstract reads: “The literature on nostalgia is summarized under the headings: (1) symptoms, (2) susceptibility (as related to race and nationality, age, temperament, intelligence, education, rural and urban backgrounds), (3) conditions precipitating nostaligia, (4) theories (physiological, anatomical, and psychological), and (5) prevention and treatment.” (McCann, W. H.. Psychological Bulletin38.3 (Mar 1941): 165-182.)
McCann’s article focuses almost entirely on the type of nostalgia associated with deep homesickness that “incapacitates, leads to depression, nervousness and congestion of the brain.” In some ways, we can see why they thought nostalgia was a negative phenomenon — those trapped in the past are unlikely to be able to assimilate and grow in the present. But as our opening example illustrates, nostalgia is more than just homesickness; there must be a benefit to experiencing it.
At some point though, research on nostalgia resumed, probably with the emergence of research on positive emotion that started in the early 2000s.
There is a well-cited review article from Sedikides in 2008, which is one of the first that I see where they worked to reframe nostalgia in a positive light. Sedikides and colleagues tell the story of how nostalgia has been connected with ameliorating loneliness, decreasing greed, and increasing charitable giving.
It seems counterintuitive: how could thinking about a past occurrence that is now gone reduce loneliness? Shouldn’t that drive up loneliness when we’re reminded of something that is missing?
It’s part of a very interesting process of drawing on our deeper reserves of positive emotion. One article in particular, written by Zhou et al., in 2008. They performed a series of experiments to relate nostalgia with perceived social support, loneliness and resilience. First, they found that nostalgia mediates loneliness through perceived social support, hinting at nostalgia’s power as a social emotion, resting on the architecture by which we use social connections to enhance our well-being. Then, they induced loneliness through a manipulation where participants were forced to think lonely thoughts. Participants who had this induced loneliness reported increased nostalgia, though loneliness decreased perceptions of social support. The part where nostalgia comes in, is that the feeling of nostalgia directly reduced feelings of loneliness by reaffirming social support. In other words, nostalgia was generated to combat the isolation of loneliness.
The authors give a nice summary: “In all, the data are consistent with the idea that both resilient and nonresilient people derive perceived social support from nostalgia, but highly resilient people are more likely to recruit nostalgia when lonely. Resilient people have incorporated nostalgia in their arsenal of coping mechanisms.”
In sum, it appears that the brain has armed itself with a technique for guarding against the perils of loneliness. Loneliness itself is a very harmful phenomenon. Humans depend on each other, we are social animals. This line of research shows that nostalgia is a fundamental emotion, perhaps even a drive, that grew out of our ability to find something to fight for when we are feeling down. Nostalgia can be a motivating emotion that protects us from feeling alone.
*note that an earlier version of this article appeared at http://glennrfox.com/start/