Revisiting the past can make the present a better place: The psychological and social benefits of nostalgia

For centuries nostalgia was viewed as an illness of the brain or mind. The consensus was that nostalgia caused physical and mental distress and by orienting people’s attention to the past, it prevented them from living fully and healthily in the present. However, this view lacked scientific support. In recent years, social psychologists have employed scientific methods to more systematically consider the psychological effects of nostalgia. Findings from these studies refute previous theories that labeled nostalgia as an illness. Instead, this research demonstrates that nostalgia is good for psychological health and helps people cope with adversity. Further, nostalgia makes people more generous, helpful, and kind.

Most of us are personally familiar with the experience of nostalgia – a sentimental longing for the past. Indeed, surveys indicate that the majority of adults, regardless of age, engage in nostalgia at least once a week (Hepper et al., 2014; Wildschut, Sedikides, Arndt, & Routledge, 2006). Posting photos for Throwback Thursday on Facebook, firing up that 90s playlist on our Ipods, and chatting with a good friend about that crazy road trip we took in college are just a few examples of the many ways that we regularly do nostalgia.

And nostalgia is big business. Consider, for example, the motion picture industry. Billions of dollars have been made by rebooting or creating sequels to film franchises from decades past. The music industry similarly reaps the financial benefits of selling repackaged versions of “the classics”. And of course, social media is thriving, in part, by capitalizing on people’s desire to reconnect with past relationships. From this perspective, nostalgia seems like a desirable state. People want to revisit the past. And if they are willing to spend their time and money on this endeavor, they must get something out of it, right? 

This view of nostalgia as a popular and desired experience stands in stark contrast to historical conceptualizations. Coined in the late 17th century by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, the term nostalgia was employed well into the 20th century to describe psychologically vulnerable individuals in distress (Davis 1979). To be nostalgic was to be ill. Hofer believed nostalgia to be a cerebral disease and one confined to Swiss soldiers and mercenaries fighting wars far from their homeland. Symptoms of this disease included irregular heartbeat, anxiety, insomnia, and disordered eating. It gets worse. Hofer postulated that nostalgia was of demonic origin.

Other physicians of that era had their own, but no less entertaining, perspectives. For example, one idea that was floated was that nostalgia was a Swiss disease resulting from damage caused to the ears and brain by the non-stop clanging of cowbells in the Alps. Over the next couple hundred years, theorists and practitioners would differ in the particulars on how they viewed nostalgia, but they all agreed on one thing. Nostalgia was an illness (see Sedikides, Wildschut, Arndt, & Routledge, 2008). It was bad for psychological and perhaps even physical health. So which is it? Is nostalgia something to be valued, a desirable experience that people should embrace? Or is it an unhealthy activity, an experience that people should avoid (to the extent that one can avoid demons and cowbells)?

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