The psychology of nostalgia and why we can’t get enough of it at the moment
16th Jun 2021
There's a reason we love being reminded of things that happened in our past. Amanda Cassidy explores why our trips down memory lane have been such an important part of surviving lockdown
It’s natural to feel a longing for times gone by. It helps that it’s easier to remember the good times – Dewberry perfume, gloopy lipgloss, chokers, spice burgers, the spice girls…
And it turns out that there is a reason we are all losing our minds over the Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) reunion, or remakes of some of our favourite movies.
Now Psychologists at the University of Southampton have found that nostalgia boosts feelings of happiness, decreases loneliness, and enhances feelings of self-continuity by increasing a sense of social connectedness – Remember, that thing we used to do with our friends?
According to the study, sentimental recollections by participants generally included loved ones, which can remind us of a social web that extends across people and time
That’s why nostalgia is currently playing such an important role. Psychologically is has become a protective function.
Long before it was commercialised to sell products, nostalgia was written about as a serious illness – 17th-century soldiers were particularly prone to this disease – thought now to be a result of missing home.
The word nostalgia comes from the Greek: Nostos means homecoming; algos means ache. It was first coined by Dr. Johannes Hoffer, in 1688, who considered it to be a maladaptive neurological condition, where memories kept uncontrollably resurfacing of past times.
The meaning of life
But crucially, studies have suggested that when people experience a sense of existential threat, nostalgia acts as a powerful psychological defence – it gives people a sense of meaning and purpose. Which, biologically can be seen as having a better reason to fight to stay alive.
In one particularly unusual study, participants were asked to read either a random passage about computers or a philosophical essay about our raison d’etre in the grand scheme of being one of seven billion people living on the planet.
Those who read the essay registered higher on the ‘nostalgia’ scoreboard than those who read the passage about computers.
In other words, nostalgia acts as a psychological buffer against the idea that life is essentially meaningless. If you think about it, nostalgia usually involves the self as the central figure, in conjunction with their interaction with others.
Once evoked, this can help to re-establish psychological equanimity. It elevates mood, a sense of social connectedness and fosters perceptions of continuity between past and present.
Remembering the past with fondness is a way of saying something was important, that it mattered to you and that you hold it close.
This, of course, brings us neatly back to the Bennifer saga – a whole other level of meaningful existentialism. Our nostalgia for their coupledom may not have been the thing that got us through lockdown (although it did a little) but let’s not underestimate the power of a good romance story.
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