- Nostalgia focuses the mind on what is most important for the good life: family, close friends, community, and the rituals and traditions that help preserve a social and cultural fabric. Tweet This
- Across a number of studies, we have observed that after engaging in nostalgic reflection, people feel more socially valued, loved, socially confident, and optimistic about being able to form and maintain close relationships. Tweet This
What makes life feel meaningful? What goals and choices lead to fulfillment? When tragedy and despair strike, how does one restore the sense that life is worth living?
These types of questions are always difficult to answer, but perhaps particularly so in our individualistic society, where people are increasingly disconnected from deep family and cultural networks and encouraged to distrust tradition and the guidance of elders. And yet, critical clues to finding and sustaining meaning in life are often tucked away within our most cherished memories.
For nearly 20 years, in collaboration with an international group of scholars, I have been studying the psychology of nostalgia, attempting to understand how it is experienced, what causes it, and how it influences our lives.1 This research has involved a diverse range of methodologies, such as text analysis of nostalgia narratives, surveys examining the relation between nostalgic tendencies and other psychological characteristics, and experiments utilizing self-report, behavioral, and neuroscientific paradigms to identify what causes us to long for the past and how engaging in nostalgic reflection makes us feel and behave.
Our team was the first to launch a comprehensive program of empirical research on the psychology of nostalgia. This work has revealed that, far from being an experience that causes distress as it was seen in the past, nostalgia is a psychological resource that serves a vital role in helping people in their pursuit of a meaningful life. Our study of nostalgia also bolsters other research that reveals that meaning is deeply social. It is generated and sustained by close bonds with family and friends.
Nostalgic Memories are Social Memories
One way our research team has approached the study of nostalgia is by simply asking people to describe in writing an experience from their lives that makes them feel nostalgic. After collecting these nostalgic narratives, we use a combination of computer text analysis software and trained human coders to quantify the content of nostalgic memories along a range of dimensions.
Are there common themes expressed in nostalgic memories? Yes. Most people’s nostalgic memories involve intimate relationships, especially family, and they tend to focus on positive emotions, though they can also include expressions of loss and sadness. For example, below is a word cloud representing the content of nostalgia narratives from a sample of 452 primarily young adults who participated in recent studies conducted in my lab. Family was the most frequently used word among these participants. Positive emotion words were also very common.
Nostalgic memories regularly feature cherished family experiences such as holidays, extended family gatherings, family vacations, weddings, the birth of child or grandchild, and religious rites of passage. However, even seemingly minor social encounters can become sources of nostalgia if they are savored experiences that make people feel deeply connected. In general, nostalgic memories are social memories. They almost always involve family, romantic partners, or close friends. These memories also tend to involve complex emotions (happiness tinged with loss) but are overwhelmingly positive and even frequently include expressions of gratitude.
Nostalgia Enhances Belongingness and Counters Threats to Belongingness
Critically, nostalgia doesn’t simply remind people of a past filled with social connections. It makes them feel connected and motivated to connect. For instance, in experimental studies, we randomly assigned participants to conditions that involve reflecting on a nostalgic memory or control conditions that involve thinking about more ordinary autobiographical memories. Subsequently, we administered questionnaires that assess different indicators of social connectedness. Across a number of studies, we have observed that after engaging in nostalgic reflection, people feel more socially valued, loved, socially confident, and optimistic about being able to form and maintain close relationships. In short, nostalgia brings online the social self.2
Many use Facebook not just to connect with others but specifically to reconnect with family and friends who live far away or who they haven’t seen in many years. Nostalgia plays a key role in fostering these connections.
Since nostalgia puts people’s minds on meaningful relationships, it also orients them toward social goals. Our studies find that following a nostalgia induction, or when people report high levels of nostalgia, they are more motivated to pursue social goals, have a greater desire to be around other people, and have a greater desire to resolve relationship problems.3 These findings help explain why feelings of loneliness or social exclusion trigger nostalgia.4 Nostalgia serves an interpersonal regulatory function. When people’s social needs are not being met, they are more inclined to nostalgically reflect on past meaningful social experiences, and doing so may help give them the feelings of social support, hope, and confidence needed to reconnect with people.
Nostalgia as a Guide to the Good Life
Many people appear to naturally use nostalgia, perhaps without even realizing it, as a guide to finding meaning in life.5 When life feels uncertain or meaningless, many revisit the cherished memories that remind them that life, even though sometimes painful and difficult, is also full of experiences that make it worthwhile. Critically, these experience almost always involve family or other close relationships. In this way, the past holds vital keys for pursuing a meaningful future. People don’t tend to be nostalgic about financial rewards, materialistic pursuits, vanity strivings, or individualistic priorities.
In other words, nostalgia focuses the mind on what is most important for the good life: family, close friends, community, and the rituals and traditions that help preserve a social and cultural fabric. In fact, nostalgia may transfer meaning across generations. For instance, recent research found that when young adults read the nostalgic narratives of older adults, they also experienced nostalgia as well as the feelings of social connection and meaning that nostalgia generates.6
Even our future-focused technological endeavors reveal the power of the past and how our longing for it can be a guide for the future.7 Consider, for instance, the rise of social media. Many use Facebook not just to connect with others but specifically to reconnect with family and friends who live far away or who they haven’t seen in many years. Nostalgia plays a key role in fostering these connections. For instance, someone might post an old photo as a way to provoke loved ones into reminiscing with them about the photo.
However, social media use has also been linked to increased loneliness and lower well-being, suggesting that technology can both promote and undermine social connection. This is where nostalgia can serve as a guide for how to use technology in a way that promotes the social goals and experiences that provide meaning. Specifically, many people enjoy the social networking features of technology, which make it easier for them to share memories with family and friends, but they also get frustrated with the aspects of social media that promote political tribalism and fear of missing out. People don’t experience nostalgia through fighting on the Internet about politics or following the carefully manicured digital lives of celebrities. The features of social media they value and benefit from most are not those that cause them to be dissatisfied with the present and anxious about the future, but those that keep them rooted in a past that helps remind them of what truly matters in life.
Clay Routledge is a Quillette columnist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. You can follow him on Twitter @clayroutledge.
1. Routledge, C. (2015). Nostalgia: A psychological resource.New York: Routledge Press.
2. Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., & Hepper, E. (2015). To nostalgize: Mixing memory with affect and desire. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 189-258.
3. Abeyta, A. A., Routledge, C., & Juhl, J. (2015). Looking back to move forward: Nostalgia as a psychological resource for promoting relationship aspirations and overcoming relationship challenges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 1029-1044.
4. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,91, 975 – 993.
5. Routledge C., Arndt, J., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Hart, C., Juhl, J., Vingerhoets, A. J., & Scholtz, W. (2011). The past makes the present meaningful: Nostalgia as an existential resource. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 638-652.
6. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., & Robertson, S. (2018). Sociality and intergenerational transfer of older adults’ nostalgia. Memory, 26, 1030-1041.
7. Cox, C. R., Kersten, M., Routledge, C., Brown, E. M., & Van Enkevort, E. A. (2015). When past meets present: The relationship
between website-induced nostalgia and well-being.Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 282-299.