Vivid nostalgia is a fascinating experience. It can emerge from a single sensory cue from the outside world, careening us to another previous personhood.
Nostalgia is like a lot of the things that interest me. It is difficult to define, but everyone seems to know what it is. The common definition of nostalgia is an emotional feeling occurring when we recall something from the past that was positive but is now gone.
Historically, nostalgia has been thought of as a negative experience, one that weakens the knees. In Stalin’s army, nostalgia prone soldiers were executed.
Early psychologists also did not render nostalgia in positive light. I found an early review article on nostalgia, dated 1941. The abstract reads: “The literature on nostalgia is summarized under the headings: (1) symptoms, (2) susceptibility (as related to race and nationality, age, temperament, intelligence, education, rural and urban backgrounds), (3) conditions precipitating nostaligia, (4) theories (physiological, anatomical, and psychological), and (5) prevention and treatment.”
Reading McCann’s article, I think, is more focused on the type of nostalgia associated with deep homesickness that “incapacitates, leads to depression, nervousness and congestion of the brain.” In some ways, I can see why they thought it was a negative phenomenon.
At some point though, research on nostalgia resumed, probably with the emergence of research on positive emotion that started in the early 2000s.
There is a well-cited review article from Sedikides in 2008, which is one of the first that I see where they worked to reframe nostalgia in a positive light. Sedikides and colleagues tell the story of how nostalgia has been connected with ameliorating loneliness, decreasing greed, and increasing charitable giving. I can’t quite tell what the impetus was to flip nostalgia’s framing from a negative to a positive emotional experience, but it has opened up an interesting line of research.
From here, I would like to highlight nostalgia’s role in loneliness. It seems counterintuitive: how could thinking about a past occurrence that is now gone reduce loneliness? Shouldn’t that drive up loneliness when we’re reminded of something that is missing?
I’m going to focus on one article in particular, written by Zhou et al., in 2008 . They performed a series of experiments to relate nostalgia with perceived social support, loneliness and resilience. First, they found that nostalgia mediates loneliness through perceived social support, hinting at nostalgia’s power as a social emotion, resting on the architecture by which we use social connections to enhance our well-being. Then, they induced loneliness through a manipulation where participants were forced to, more or less, think lonely thoughts. Participants who had this induced loneliness reported increased nostalgia, though loneliness decreased perceptions of social support. The part where nostalgia comes in, is that the feeling of nostalgia helped ameliorate feelings of loneliness by reaffirming social support. Nostalgia was generated to combat the isolation of loneliness.
The authors give a nice summary: “In all, the data are consistent with the idea that both resilient and nonresilient people derive perceived social support from nostalgia, but highly resilient people are more likely to recruit nostalgia when lonely. Resilient people have incorporated nostalgia in their arsenal of coping mechanisms.”
In sum, it appears that the brain has armed itself with a technique for guarding against the perils of loneliness. Loneliness itself is a very harmful phenomenon. Humans depend on each other, we are social animals. I think this line of research shows that nostalgia is a fundamental emotion, perhaps even a drive, that grew out of our ability to find something to fight for when we are feeling down. Nostalgia can be a motivating emotion that protects us from feeling alone.