Why Do We Feel Nostalgia?


More than 300 years ago, nostalgia wasn’t seen as a harmless musing about the past, but as a mental disorder with potentially disastrous complications. It was seen as a form of depression, or a serious symptom of such depression, in which a person was unable to fully live in the present. A Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer first gave a name to the condition after observing the low spirits of Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lands. The word itself, nostalgia, comes from Greek origins: nostos (homecoming) and algos (ache). From this point forward, for the better part of a century, such sensations of nostalgia were largely considered a symptom of depression.

As more and more people began to study this strange mental phenomenon, it was seen that not all nostalgia came from a place of sadness or longing, but often from a desire to reflect on happy memories of the past. By the end of the 20th century, nostalgia was no longer seen as a symptom of depression, but actually a means to counteract it.

According to a brand new study that was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers have now reported that spending a good portion of every day mired in the past is associated with negative feelings.

“Nostalgia is a mixed emotion,” David Newman, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. candidate at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said in an article by Emily Gersema on the university’s website. “It also is negative. We found that people are most likely to think of the good old days when something goes wrong in the present.” In fact, whether feelings of nostalgia trigger positive or negative emotions has to do with how you’re feeling on a particular day and what promoted the nostalgic feelings.

So what exactly is behind it? Well, negative nostalgic thoughts can run the course, from convincing yourself life was better in the past to beating yourself up for things in the past that you might perceive as negatively affecting your life in the present. The study explained that when prompted to think about positive experiences from the past, people generally felt good. On the other hand, unprompted nostalgia during the course of everyday life was associated with negative emotions.

To simplify its cause, researchers have urged that those who may be stuck in a cycle of thoughts from the past to be gentle with themselves and not to be hard on the situation at hand. “Try not to be frustrated with yourself if you can’t stop thinking about the past. It’s a normal and healthy thing that your brain does in order to get your attention,” Erin Carpenter, LCSW and founder of Denver-based Thrive Counselling, explained on her website. “It’s saying ‘hey, this thing needs to integrated into your life now. It’s over but I haven’t processed it yet.'”

On his website, Psychotherapist Tim Hill also clearly outlined that there are two ways to think about the past – rumination and introspection. Whereas introspection is a form of curiosity and self exploration, rumination is focused on regret and results in what he referred to as wheel spinning. “There is little pleasure or insight to be gained from rumination; on the contrary, it’s more associated with anxiety and depression. Rumination has a heavy and automatic tone to it,” According to Hill.

This is perhaps why unprompted daily nostalgia makes you feel dark and twisty. “At those times, where we think about the past and we wonder what we might have done differently, or we wonder about the actions of others, we are essentially spinning our wheels,” Hill explained. “In doing this, we don’t draw anything from the past but continue to sink our present moment into our regrets.”

The study also discovered that participants noted they felt stressed, anxious, depressed, and lonely on days when they also felt nostalgic, Gersema reported. In addition, they reported lower self-esteem, and increased regret and rumination on these days, which caused them to feel less calm the following day.

According to the study, nostalgia also triggers positive feelings on days when participants helped others, were reminded of old friendships, music from their past, and when they engaged with social media.

“The results from these studies stand in sharp contrast to the prevailing conclusion from previous research, which had indicated that nostalgia is a mixed but predominantly positive emotion,” Newman said in the article.

Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University states, “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”

He goes on to explain that those who participate in nostalgia are most likely better off when coping with realities of death. When thinking back to your life, and the moments that comprised it, you find value and meaning in it. You are no longer burdened with the heavy weight that your life went unfulfilled.

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