What to Know About Nostalgia

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on April 08, 2024
5 min read

It’s easy to get lost while walking down memory lane. Today, it feels like everywhere you look, there’s another ‘90s fashion homage, throwback playlist, or flashback photo that sends you down the rabbit hole of remember-when. Clearly, nostalgia is no passing obsession. But what prompts this fixation on the past? Has it gotten more common as humans ponder the meaning of life in an increasingly chaotic world? Is nostalgia healthy – or is there such a thing as too much nostalgia?

The word "nostalgia" means a sentimental yearning for the past that evokes feelings of pleasure with occasional notes of sadness. Derived from the Greek words “nostos” (return) and “algos” (pain), the word goes back more than 300 years. A Swiss doctor coined the term to define the troubled emotional state of homesick mercenaries. By the early 19th century, nostalgia was linked to depression. It wasn’t until 1979 that a sociologist began to redefine nostalgia in a more positive light and separate it from homesickness.

Nostalgia generally centers on the self or close friends and relatives. Although usually focused on positive past events, nostalgia can also include unpleasant memories like disappointment and loss.

Nostalgia examples

Many activities can trigger nostalgia. Here are a few nostalgia examples:

  • Remembering an important event, like a graduation or birthday party
  • Watching home videos
  • Sorting through old photographs
  • Reminiscing with friends or family

People often turn to nostalgic musings to try to lift their spirits when they’re feeling sad or lonely. Once you understand how it works, nostalgia can be a powerful psychological tool.

When you’re feeling nostalgic, there’s a lot happening in the memory and reward systems of your brain. Nostalgia-related activity mainly happens in the hippocampus, ventral striatum, and substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area. Scientists believe these systems work together to generate nostalgia, but they don’t know precisely how.

Interestingly, not everyone experiences nostalgia in the same way. How likely you are to have nostalgia depends on “trait nostalgia.”

People high in trait nostalgia cherish social inclusion. Studies suggest that they may have greater social connectedness, self-esteem, and levels of optimism. Based on this, it makes sense that nostalgia-prone people often show a stronger connection with song lyrics and activities that are based on social relationships. Nostalgia proneness is also positively linked to higher levels of empathy and charitable behavior.

According to one 2013 study, two views have developed regarding nostalgia proneness:

  • Sociality view. This view focuses on the social aspect of nostalgia, defining nostalgic people by their tendency to relive meaningful memories rich in social context.
  • Maladaptation view. This view maintains that nostalgia can signify depression and emotional instability stemming from not being able to cope with the demands of adulthood.

When trying to integrate these contrasting views of nostalgia, this study found that the need to belong (in other words, to be part of meaningful social experiences) dictated people's levels of nostalgia. Once a person felt a sense of belonging, they felt less inclined to compensate with nostalgia.

Today, nostalgia is generally viewed as a positive emotion with numerous health benefits.

People have nostalgia for different reasons, depending on the type of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be divided into two categories: historical nostalgia and personal nostalgia.

Historical nostalgia 

This type happens when a person pines for a time or society that may predate their own existence. Research suggests that historical nostalgia may be more likely to signify that you’re unhappy with the present.

Personal nostalgia 

This is when someone revisits personal memories or longs for moments from their own life. One study found that comparing historical and personal nostalgia makes people feel warmth, tenderness, elation, loss, and regret more intensely.

Nostalgia renews appreciation for the past and sparks hopefulness for the future, making it a valuable psychological resource.

One study found that people reported higher nostalgia when they were told they’d be alone in the future, compared to those in the study who were told they could look forward to fulfilling relationships. The study authors saw a relationship between increased nostalgia and deficient feelings of belonging and drew a connection between nostalgia and neuroticism.

Nostalgia can be described as a bittersweet state of mind because remembering the “good old days” also reinforces the fact that they are gone. Luckily for the nostalgia-prone, the pros of nostalgia generally outweigh the cons.

Despite nostalgia’s inherent focus on past events, it actually provides fuel for the future. Nostalgia triggers emotions, behaviors, and goals that can positively impact these parts of your life:

  • Emotions. Nostalgia can result in a bevy of positive emotional states, including increased optimism and inspiration, boosted self-esteem, and feelings of purpose and youthfulness. Nostalgia can also provide a restorative outlet in uncertain, stressful, or overwhelming situations.
  • Behavior. Nostalgia can be an effective motivator, both inspiring you and driving you to act on that inspiration. For instance, one study found that nostalgia-induced optimism about physical health resulted in increased physical activity. Another study, after citing nostalgia as a primary coping mechanism during the COVID-19 pandemic, found that it’s also fueling a resurgence in post-pandemic leisure travel.
  • Social cognition. Nostalgia can encourage you to solve interpersonal issues, reconnect with old friends, and prioritize the important relationships in your life. Overall, nostalgia serves to strengthen feelings of social connectedness that are vital to the human experience.
  • Creativity. Studies have found that nostalgia fosters creativity. People who took part in one study produced more creative prose in writing when having nostalgia. Openness to experience determined nostalgia’s influence on their creativity levels.

At healthy levels, it’s clear that nostalgia has psychological and physical health benefits. But is there such a thing as too much nostalgia?

Like many human emotions, nostalgia can become unhealthy if you let it take over. After all, spending too much time reliving your "glory days" can make it tough to appreciate your todays. But as long as you maintain your grasp on the present and anticipation for the future, nostalgia can be your ally! Here’s to nostalgia propelling you toward a tomorrow worth reminiscing about.

Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for the past, rooted in the Greek words for "return" and "pain." It has evolved from being linked to homesickness to a more positive emotion, often triggered by activities like watching old videos or reminiscing with loved ones. It activates various brain regions linked to memory and reward, affecting people differently. While some view it as a way to connect socially and boost optimism, others see it as a sign of emotional instability. But nostalgia generally offers emotional, behavioral, and social benefits, including more optimism, motivation, and creativity.