The Psychology of Nostalgia (in under 300 words)

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Nostalgia has been rehabilitated from a disease of the mind to a beneficial emotional experience.

It seems incredible now but at one time nostalgia used to be considered a psychiatric condition:

“Nostalgia was regarded as a medical disease confined to the Swiss, a view that persisted through most of the 19th century. Symptoms—including bouts of weeping, irregular heartbeat, and anorexia—were attributed variously to demons inhabiting the middle brain, sharp differentiation in atmospheric pressure wreaking havoc in the brain, or the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Swiss Alps which damaged the eardrum and brain cells.” (Sedikides et al., 2008)

Nowadays we know that it’s not just the Swiss that ‘suffer’ from nostalgia, it’s most people, to varying degrees. One survey finds that 80% of people feel nostalgic at least once a week.

There’s some reason to think nostalgia might be bad for you, as it does have negative components. Nostalgia is often experienced as a loss or longing for what has now gone. But studies suggest that at the same time people experience warm, positive emotions as they remember happy times.

Indeed people often find the positive components of nostalgia stronger than the negative. That’s why far from being seen as a disease of the mind, modern psychologists have been attracted to the positive attributes of nostalgia:

  • Nostalgia fights boredom. When people are bored they use nostalgia to give their lives meaning. Thinking about the past helps them feel that life has more purpose in the present.
  • Nostalgia fights loneliness. When people are nostalgic it’s almost involves other people. As social creatures, nostalgia helps remind us of our connections to others and staves off loneliness.
  • Nostalgia fights mortality. When people are exposed to reminders of illness and death, they fight it with nostalgia, which again brings meaning and connection with others.

So nostalgia is well on its way to being rehabilitated. From a disease of the mind to a valuable emotional resource: nostalgia really isn’t what it used to be.

Image credit: Victor Bezrukov

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 2 July 2013

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