I went to dinner recently with a group of old friends with whom I’d fallen out of touch. After the usual catching up on what we’d missed in the intervening years, we fell quickly into an evening of “nostalgizing.” We shared fond memories, and I went home that night feeling warm, happy, and loved. According to science, I experienced exactly what nostalgia does to us—and why it’s good.
To nostalgize is to revel in nostalgia, “a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past.”[i] A 2011 study[ii] published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants who were induced to feel nostalgic by listening to a favorite hit song from their past “were more likely than a control group to say that they felt ‘loved’ and that ‘life is worth living.’”[iii] According to the appropriately titled “Heartwarming memories,”[iv] published in the journal Emotion, colder days trigger more nostalgia than warmer ones, and “participants who recalled a nostalgic (vs. ordinary autobiographical) event perceived ambient temperature as higher.” In other words, warm memories can make you feel warmer, literally.
Originally categorized as a disease, nostalgia comes from the Greek words for homecoming, nostos, and pain, algos. Coined by a Swiss physician in 1688, the term was used to describe a “sufferer [who] was manic with longing.”[v] Today when we use the term, we usually mean “a self-conscious, bittersweet but predominantly positive” emotion that “arises from fond memories mixed with yearning.”[vi] In “To Nostalgize: Mixing Memory with Affect and Desire,” psychologist Constantine Sedikides and colleagues describe three functions nostalgia serves:
- Nostalgia makes us feel more positively about ourselves and the future.
- Nostalgia makes us see life as meaningful.
- Nostalgia increases our social connectedness.
Nostalgia, which can boost our well-being, is different from simply remembering, which can sometimes make us feel sad. Thinking about the past can sometimes trigger what-ifs and other feelings of regret. Nostalgizing is a comparison-free way of looking at the past.
“Nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past, is a common, universal, and highly social emotional experience,”[vii] write Taylor FioRito and Clay Routledge in their paper “Is Nostalgia a Past or Future-Oriented Experience?” published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020. “When people bring to mind memories that make them nostalgic, they are revisiting personally meaningful life events shared with loved ones,” they explain. “Nostalgia involves reflecting on past experiences but it motivates affective states, behaviors, and goals that improve people’s future lives.”