Nostalgia has a bad reputation. Some people view it as unhealthy, a mental weakness signifying fear of change and progress. Many see it as a form of escapism, a feeling that people enjoy because it takes them away from reality and back to their youth. I’ve even heard it argued that nostalgia is bad for business, as companies need to focus on the present and prepare for the future, not dwell on the past.
A growing body of research indicates that all these intuitions about nostalgia are wrong. Reflecting nostalgically on the past is a common and healthy experience that helps people find the inspiration and confidence needed to move forward in life, particularly during difficult times. I would go so far as to say that nostalgia is about the future more than the past.
The term was coined in 1688 by Swiss physician
to capture what was believed to be a medical condition mostly confined to Swiss mercenaries longing for their mountain home while fighting wars in the lowlands of Europe. Symptoms included deep sadness, bouts of weeping, fainting, stomach pain, disordered eating, fever, heart palpitations and suicidal thoughts. This medical-disease framing persisted through the 18th and 19th centuries, though diagnoses expanded beyond the Swiss. With the arrival of the 20th century, nostalgia was no longer treated as a physical disease but began to be thought of as a psychological ailment with symptoms we might associate today with anxiety and depression.
Later in the 20th century, some scholars began to see nostalgia in a more sympathetic light, distinguished from the more unpleasant state of homesickness. Consumer psychologists and marketing researchers documented ways in which sentimentality toward the past predicted product preference and consumer decisions. But we hadn’t yet conducted the systematic studies needed truly to understand nostalgia. This changed in the first decade of this new century when researchers, including my team, approached the study of nostalgia using the modern tools of behavioral science.
We observed that nostalgia doesn’t cause distress. Instead, distress causes nostalgia. External cues such as running into an old friend, seeing an old photo on
or hearing music from one’s youth can trigger nostalgia, but when it comes to internal psychological triggers, people tend to experience nostalgia in response to feeling sad, lonely, meaningless and uncertain about where they are in life.
Researchers have also studied the details of nostalgic memories of people from across the world. They tend to be personally meaningful social memories of experiences such as weddings, holidays, vacations with family or friends, family gatherings and religious rites of passage. They often contain a mixture of feelings, but the positive typically outweighs the negative. Critically, nostalgic narratives tend to follow a redemptive sequence in which feelings such as sadness and loss are overwhelmed by pleasant and even energizing feelings—happiness, love, gratitude and hope.
There have now been hundreds of experimental studies in which nostalgia is induced to see how it influences people. Some studies have participants spend a few minutes writing about a nostalgic memory or listening to music that makes them nostalgic. Participants in control conditions reflect on nonnostalgic memories or listen to music that they don’t associate with nostalgia. Following these or other inductions, participants respond to questionnaires that assess psychological states. In all, the research indicates that nostalgia’s effects are positive.
In a series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011, my research team found that nostalgia makes people feel more connected to those they care about and feel a greater sense of meaning in life. People naturally use nostalgia, perhaps without even realizing it, to maintain meaning. Revisiting cherished memories of times shared with those we hold dear reminds us that life, though sometimes painful and difficult, is also full of experiences that make it worthwhile.
Maybe nostalgia gives us psychological comfort in times of distress, but does it keep us from moving forward with new ideas and solutions? No. Again, the data indicate the opposite. Nostalgia increases optimism, self-confidence, creativity and motivation to pursue goals.
I believe part of the negative view of nostalgia comes from a misunderstanding of how it is experienced. Most people who feel nostalgic aren’t looking for a wholesale return to the past. Few would trade the advances and comforts of modern life for the good old days. Instead, they are appreciating that there are lessons to be learned from the experiences that have helped imbue their lives with meaning. Nostalgia isn’t a form of escapism. It is a source of inspiration. It pushes people forward, not backward.
Mr. Routledge is a professor of management at North Dakota State University, a faculty scholar at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth and a senior research fellow at the Archbridge Institute.
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