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What to Know About Nostalgia

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 25, 2022

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 grown more prevalent 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?

What Is Nostalgia?

Derived from the Greek words “nostos” (return) and “algos” (pain), the word “nostalgia” goes back more than 300 years. A Swiss physician initially coined the term to define the troubled emotional state of homesick mercenaries. By the early 19th century, nostalgia was associated with depression. It wasn’t until 1979 that a sociologist began to redefine nostalgia in a more positive light and separate it from homesickness.

Now, nostalgia is usually regarded as a sentimental yearning for the past that evokes feelings of pleasure with occasional notes of sadness. Nostalgia generally centers around the self or close friends and relatives. Although usually focused on positive past events, nostalgia can also incorporate unpleasant memories like disappointment and loss.

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 lift their spirits when they’re feeling sad or lonely in an attempt to regulate their distress. Once you understand how it works, nostalgia can be a powerful psychological tool.

How Does Nostalgia Work?

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. Your propensity to experience nostalgia depends on “trait nostalgia”.

Individuals high in trait nostalgia cherish social inclusion. Studies suggest that they may experience greater social connectedness, self-esteem, and levels of optimism. Based on this, it makes sense that nostalgia-prone people often exhibit a stronger connection with song lyrics and activities that are based on social relationships. Nostalgia proneness is also positively correlated with 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 individuals 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 an inability to cope with the demands of adulthood.

When attempting to integrate these contrasting views of nostalgia, this study found that the need to belong (i.e., to be part of meaningful social experiences) dictated people's levels of nostalgia. Once an individual 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.

Why Do We Experience Nostalgia?

In addition to renewing appreciation for the past, nostalgia also sparks hopefulness for the future. This makes it a valuable psychological resource.

The reason why people experience nostalgia varies depending on the type of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be divided into two categories: historical nostalgia and personal nostalgia.

  • Historical nostalgia 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 happens when someone revisits personal memories or longs for moments from their own life. When comparing historical and personal nostalgia, one study found that the latter makes people feel warmth, tenderness, elation, loss, and regret more intensely.

One study found that participants reported higher nostalgia when they were told they’d be alone in the future, versus participants who were told they could look forward to fulfilling relationships. The study authors correlated increased nostalgia with 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 that the good old days are gone. Luckily for the nostalgia-prone, the pros of nostalgia generally outweigh the cons.

Benefits of Nostalgia

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 the following aspects of 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. Participants in one study produced more creative prose in writing when experiencing nostalgia. Openness to experience determined nostalgia’s influence on their creativity levels.

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

Is Nostalgia Healthy?

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.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
American Psychological Association: “Speaking of Psychology: Does nostalgia have a psychological purpose?”
The British Psychological Society: “Nostalgia - from cowbells to the meaning of life.” 
Cambridge Dictionary: “Nostalgia.”
Frontiers in Psychology: “Is Nostalgia a Past or Future-Oriented Experience? Affective, Behavioral, Social Cognitive, and Neuroscientific Evidence,” “Nostalgia Proneness and the Collective Self.”
Greater Good Magazine: “Five Ways Nostalgia Can Improve Your Well-Being.”
Harvard Business Review: “The Surprising Power of Nostalgia at Work.”
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: “The mnemonic muse: Nostalgia fosters creativity through openness to experience.”
Journal of Global Marketing: “Personal and Historical Nostalgia-A Comparison of Common Emotions.”
Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing: “Revenge travel: nostalgia and desire for leisure travel post COVID-19.”
Personality and Individual Differences: “Individual differences in nostalgia proneness: The integrating role of the need to belong,” “Induced nostalgia increases optimism (via social-connectedness and self-esteem) among individuals high, but not low, in trait nostalgia.”
Psychology & Health: “An exercise in nostalgia: Nostalgia promotes health optimism and physical activity.”
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts: “Nostalgia and identity in song lyrics.”
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: “Memory and reward systems coproduce ‘nostalgic’ experiences in the brain.”

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