What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows
New York Times
Published: July 8, 2013

...“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the
first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family
and home to get through hard times, but Dr. Sedikides emphasizes that nostalgia
is not the same as homesickness. It’s not just for those away from home, and it’s
not a sickness, despite its historical reputation.

Nostalgia was originally described as a “neurological disease of essentially
demonic cause” by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in
1688. Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries
abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by
the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.

A Universal Feeling

In the 19th and 20th centuries nostalgia was variously classified as an “immigrant
psychosis,” a form of “melancholia” and a “mentally repressive compulsive
disorder” among other pathologies. But when Dr. Sedikides, Tim Wildschut and
other psychologists at Southampton began studying nostalgia, they found it to be
common around the world, including in children as young as 7 (who look back
fondly on birthdays and vacations).

“The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in
Africa and South America,” Dr. Wildschut says. The topics are universal —
reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs,
sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded
by close friends.

Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half
experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched
off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing”
— researchers distinguish it from reminiscing — helps them feel better.

To test these effects in the laboratory, researchers at Southampton induced
negative moods by having people read about a deadly disaster and take a
personality test that supposedly revealed them to be exceptionally lonely. Sure
enough, the people depressed about the disaster victims or worried about being
lonely became more likely to wax nostalgic. And the strategy worked: They
subsequently felt less depressed and less lonely.

...“I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. “We call
this anticipatory nostalgia and have even started a line of relevant research.”

Another strategy is to draw on his “nostalgic repository” when he needs a
psychological lift or some extra motivation. At such moments, he tries to focus on
the memories and savor them without comparing them with anything else.

“Many other people,” he explains, “have defined nostalgia as comparing the past
with the present and saying, implicitly, that the past was better — ‘Those were the
days.’ But that may not be the best way for most people to nostalgize. The
comparison will not benefit, say, the elderly in a nursing home who don’t see their
future as bright. But if they focus on the past in an existential way — ‘What has my
life meant?’ — then they can potentially benefit.”

This comparison-free nostalgizing is being taught to first-year college students as
part of a study testing its value for people in difficult situations. Other experiments
are using the same technique in people in nursing homes, women recovering from
cancer surgery, and prison inmates.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t be indulging in nostalgia? People who are leery of
intimate relationships — “avoidant,” in psychological jargon — seem to reap
relatively small benefits from nostalgia compared with people who crave
closeness. And there are undoubtedly neurotics who overdo it. But for most
others, Dr. Sedikides recommends regular exercises.

“If you’re not neurotic or avoidant, I think you’ll benefit by nostalgizing two or
maybe three times a week,” he says. “Experience it as a prized possession. When
Humphrey Bogart says, ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ that’s nostalgia for you. We
have it, and nobody can take it away from us.
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