Go Ahead, Wax Nostalgic

August 2nd, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

New research says it’s just fine to indulge in wistful memories.

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The Responsibility Project

For nearly 500 years, doctors have classified nostalgia as a disease – sometimes even a form of psychosis. Even today, we might associate nostalgia with depression. Why live in the past, if you can look forward to the future?

In a recent article, New York Times science columnist John Tierney wrote that a 17th-century Swiss physician first identified nostalgia as a disorder, “attributing soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home – nostos in Greek, and the accompanying pain, algos.” As waves of immigrants left their homes in Europe to come to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors called nostalgia “the immigrant psychosis.”

But in the last 10 years, Tierney says, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – it’s looking a lot better.” In fact, he explains, scientists have found that people who indulge their nostalgia end up feeling more optimistic and more inspired about the future. Case in point, psychologist Constantine Sedikides, who moved to the University of Southampton, and was “suddenly hit with nostalgia for his previous home at the university of North Carolina: memories of old friends, Tar Heel basketball games, fried okra, the sweet smells of autumn in Chapel Hill.” While a colleague diagnosed his nostalgia as depression, Dr. Sedikides insisted that, in fact, “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

These pangs of nostalgia in 1999 inspired Sedikides to pioneer a science around nostalgia, including a questionnaire called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale. As Tierney reported, those warm feelings about the past have been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. Nostalgia “makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Nostalgia’s usefulness may vary with age, however. As Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England, noted, nostalgia levels tend to be high among young adults, dipping in middle age and rising again during old age. “Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper told Tierney. Dr. Sedikides said that the years of research have inspired strategies for increasing nostalgia in his own life – where he actually creates moments he knows will be memorable. “We call this anticipatory nostalgia and have even started a line of relevant research.”

In fact, “making memories” doesn’t seem like such a new practice. Have you ever regarded nostalgia to be a bad thing? What do you do to create “anticipatory nostalgia,” and do warm memories make you more optimistic for the future?