More Than Just Being a Sentimental Fool: The Psychology of Nostalgia

In the 17th and 18th centuries, nostalgia was viewed as a medical disease, complete with symptoms including weeping, irregular heartbeat and anorexia.  By the 20th century, nostalgia was regarded as a psychiatric disorder, with symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and depression and was confined to a few groups (e.g. first year boarding students and immigrants). Only recently have psychologists begun focusing on the positive and potentially therapeutic aspects of nostalgia, report University of Southampton psychologist Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Recent studies examining nostalgia have shown that it occurs in all cultures and among all age groups. Despite this wide range, there are some features that are common to the majority of nostalgic experiences. For example, nostalgic thoughts will usually feature a person we are close to, a significant event or a place important to us. In addition, we play a starring role in our nostalgic scenes, although we are generally surrounded by family and friends.

Research suggests that nostalgia can promote psychological health.  Inducing nostalgia in a group of study volunteers resulted in overall positive feelings in this group, including higher self-esteem and an increase in the feeling of being loved and protected by others.  Recent work has also shown that nostalgia counteracts effects of loneliness, by increasing perceptions of social support. In addition, that same study found that loneliness can trigger nostalgia.

Another important function of nostalgia may be in providing a link between our past and present selves—that is, nostalgia may provide us with a positive view of the past and this could help to give us a greater sense of continuity and meaning to our lives.  The researchers surmise that nostalgia may also acquire greater significance in old age—elderly adults are especially vulnerable to social isolation and nostalgia may help them overcome feelings of loneliness.

The authors note that “nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength”.  They conclude that “nostalgia is uniquely positioned to offer integrative insights across such areas of psychology as memory, emotion, the self and relationships. Nostalgia has a long past and an exciting future.”

Comments

Finally a read which makes my thinking process make sense! I do believe that nostalgia has served the purpose of integrating the past with the present, as well as past selves with the present self. Too many times have I been told I am overly sentimental and left much lonelier than I was to begin with. This text provides me with some hope and affirmation, so thank you.

I’m researching the difference between being a sentimentalist and being nostalgic. My sentimentalism destroyed my life because I didn’t know how to let go of denial of reality.

I am also doing research on the differences between nostalgia and sentimentality. I am an artist and was recently asked which mental state my work was coming from- to which I had no reply because I truly did not know the difference between the two terms. Did you discover a good source for information on this inquiry- or perhaps come to any realization yourself that you could share with me?

I was thinking if something like that. You might have trouble letting go of what needs letting go of to move on, especially when your old stuff from early childhood, teen years or young adulthood is under threat of being grown away or donated against your will by a loved one who has an equal or greater stake in running of the house, even if the items are overflowing in storage. If you are a hoarder on your own, or if you hold your teen kid back from growing up in a safe way (you still have to be the parent), you might be a sentimentalist. I know this of myself as a single guy, living in his own, who keeps his old stuff in his parents’ storage.

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