What is Nostalgia?

What is nostalgia all about?

Whenever you remember an ordinary event, you rarely experience both happiness and sadness at the same time.

But during recollection of a nostalgic event, we tend to have that exact co-activation of those feelings.

The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing for the past.”

I don’t necessarily enjoy looking at old pictures and watching videos of my childhood too much. It puts me in a melancholic mood that is difficult to shake off later.

Plus I looked ridiculous most of the time.

via lightnarcissus.com

Indeed, nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion.

Nostalgia combines the pleasant memory of the past with the cold realisation that a desirable aspect of that past is irredeemably lost.

When experiencing nostalgia, we experience both joy and a sense of loss as the past can no longer be recreated.

The link between warmth, joy, and affection is not surprising in this context. Similarly, the experience of nostalgia as a ‘‘bittersweet’’ emotion has been frequently noted in the literature.

The pleasant memory of the past is combined with a sense of loss associated with the realization that the past cannot be recreated.

What do we get nostalgic about?

Nostalgia expert Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton suggests that we get nostalgic about close others (family members, friends, partners), momentous events (birthdays, vacations), and settings (sunsets, lakes).

I personally used to get nostalgic about WWE and my primary school years.

I still get super nostalgic about The O.C and my high school years though.

Just thought I’d put that out there…

Nostalgia makes you feel happy

Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton and his colleagues suggests that people think of nostalgic experiences whenever they feel sad.

“I think of nostalgic experiences when I am sad as they often make me feel better”

But they also tend to think of their close ones when they’re sad, too.

“If I ever feel lonely or sad I tend to think of my friends or family who I haven’t seen in a long time”

Wildschut claims that nostalgia serves as a “repository of positive affect.”

In other words, we use nostalgia to access the joyous memories in our memory.

By tapping into these memories through nostalgia and remembering, we get to relive those moments of joy, elation, and happiness.

Nostalgia helps you feel less alone

Wildschut goes on to suggest that experiencing nostalgia is a way of making yourself feel less alone, feel less lonely.

Whenever you might be feeling the aching pang of loneliness, experiencing nostalgia will cement the symbolic ties with the important people in your life, helping those people become a part of your present, even for a fleeting moment.

It also gives you a sense of social support.

This is why Wildschut refers to nostalgia as a social emotion.

In his paper, Tim Wildschut observed that nostalgic participants “felt more loved and protected, had reduced attachment anxiety and avoidance, and reported greater interpersonal competence.”

These participants also felt a stronger sense of social connectedness to the close people in their life.

According to Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University and colleagues nostalgia is a psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health.

Nostalgia gives you meaning

The past makes the present meaningful.

This way, nostalgia boosts optimism about life but also “assuages existential threat.”

Wildschut and co. also say that nostalgia may “spark inspiration and foster creativity.”

Nostalgia boosted perceptions of life as meaningful and assuaged existential threat.

Fighting the future with the past

According to Jacob Juhl of the North Dakota State University and his colleagues, nostalgia acts as a buffer against existential threat.

They observe that, through nostalgia, people “cling to the relationships, groups, and beliefs that imbue their lives with purpose, stability and permanence.”

They cling to these things because it prevents death cognition from turning into death anxiety.

Having said that, nostalgia is an important psychological mechanism that comforts us, when reminded of our own mortality.

It plays the role of an existential resource.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.


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