Exploring Nostalgia: Does it Have Positive or Negative Effects on Mental Health?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! A time filled with food, family and traditions. Interestingly enough, every wonderful time of year comes with the memories of all wonderful times past. When we’re around family and friends, acting out traditions, we are reminded of similar times we’ve had. It is also time for a new beginning. As Semisonic so wisely said, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”; and when something ends, we reflect (Semisonic, n.d.). Remembering and reflecting are two components that make up a commonly known term: nostalgia.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, nostalgia is “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” It is such a unique phenomenon because it fuses both positive and negative experiences and emotions. Whenever we have a fond memory, it often illicits feelings of love, warmth, and belonging. However, almost simultaneously, the same fond memory may also illicit feelings of loss and longing. So how are we supposed to interpret this psychological state of mind? Is it beneficial or harmful to our mental health? Just like most things in this world and in the field of psychology, it is both, and it is complex.

Intriguingly, most states of nostalgia are triggered by negative emotions such as loneliness, concerns about death, and even boredom. However, studies show nostalgia can increase feelings of social connectedness and enhance meaning in our lives. This curious cause and effect has produced theories that nostalgia may serve as our mind’s way of affect regulation, or more simply put: making ourselves feel better (Cavanagh, Glode, & Opitz, 2015). When we are feeling lousy, lonely, and bored, our minds may be drawn to times when life was full of adventure, love, and family. This can counteract our initial emotional state, and leave us feeling hopeful about our futures and ourselves. If it happened then, it can happen again.

Despite the many studies that show nostalgia has positive effects on our mental well being, there are a few exceptions that suggest the opposite. Dr. Sedikides, a Professor of Social and Personality Psychology within Psychology at the University of Southampton suggests those who are “avoidant” or “neurotic” should refrain from frequent nostalgia (Tierney, 2013). In the language of psychology, being “avoidant” is typically characterized by extreme shyness, trouble with attachment, and difficulty with relationships and intimacy. Basically it’s an extreme version of being a commitment-phobe. “Neurotic” is characterized by frequent anxiety, depression, and other feelings of distress without any evidential reason.

For these people, the feelings of bitterness may be stronger in the bittersweet traits of nostalgia. In a study done by Dr. Bas Verplanken, that’s exactly what he found. When nostalgia was experimentally induced, the “participants who had a strong habit of habitual worrying subsequently showed enhanced symptoms of anxiety and depression” (Verplanken, 2012).

Not only do the initial mental states of people contribute to the effects nostalgia can have on them, but they can also contribute to how they “nostalgize.” For example, a habitual worrier may have nostalgia, but in his/her mind he/she is simply comparing the rosy past to the dismal now and coming to the conclusion that the past was better. Now say a non-worrier had nostalgia, but in his/her mind, he/she saw the rosy past in an existential way (Tierney, 2013). Instead of thinking, “the past was better” like the worrier, the non-worrier might be thinking, “The past was full of great times. Look how far I’ve come, and how much I have to look forward to.” Apparently seeing the glass half-full or half-empty also applies to how we see and feel about our past, and not just what is going on in our present.

Overall, nostalgia can be a great tool to enhance your well being. It can aide in difficult times, help overcome fears of mortality, give your life more meaning, the list goes on. Dr. Sedikides even encourages people to use it as an exercise by “nostalgizing two or maybe three times a week” (Tierney, 2013).  However, for those who may be avoidant, neurotic, or habitual worriers, this is probably not the best way to spend your time. Instead, Dr. Verplanken suggests developing mindfulness to focus on the present and the possibilities of the future, instead of dwelling on the perceived loss of the past (Verplanken, 2012).

If you are unsure whether you fall under the “neurotic” umbrella, here is a link to a quiz where you can “Test your Neuroticism.” This is in no way a comprehensive psychological test and results should be taken lightly.

Works Cited

Cavanagh, S. R., Glode, R. J., & Opitz, P. C. (2015). Lost or fond? Effects of nostalgia on sad mood recovery vary by attachment insecurity. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, . doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00773

Nostalgia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2016, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nostalgia

Tierney, J. (2013, July 8). What is nostalgia good for? Quite a bit, research shows. Science. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Semisonic. (n.d.). Closing time. On Feeling Strangely Fine

Verplanken, B. (2012). When bittersweet turns sour: Adverse effects of nostalgia on habitual worriers. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42(3), 285–289.  doi:10.1002/ejsp.1852

World, P., & partners. (2016). Do you have A neurotic personality? Take the Neuroticism test. Retrieved December 19, 2016, from Psychologist World, https://www.psychologistworld.com/influence_personality/fivefactortest/neuroticism1.php

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