Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for one’s past. Oftentimes, clients I see seem a bit worried about either their tendency to “nostalgise” or my insistence on mentally re-living their past experiences and spending some time there. A study I came across recently encouraged me to dig a bit deeper. Namely, nostalgia can be bittersweet, although more sweet than bitter. It entails warmth, tenderness, contentment, and joy, but also a yearning and sadness for the irredeemable passing of valued moments. It occurs frequently, across various cultures and ages.
Nostalgia and Well-being
Over the past decade or so, nostalgia has been associated with increased psychological well-being. Psychological well-being includes; flourishing social relationships, subjective vitality, a sense of competence, feelings of autonomy, the perception of life as meaningful, an optimistic view of one’s future, and subjective well-being.
Kelley and his colleagues (2022) cite research that explains the connection between nostalgia and these psychological well-being factors:
a) Social relationships
We all have a fundamental need to form and maintain social relationships that usually form part of our nostalgic recollections. Thus, nostalgia facilitates their development and maintenance. Furthermore, nostalgia is triggered by loneliness and helps combat it by increasing social approach motivation, perceived social support, or happiness. It is also associated with belongingness – the feeling that we belong. There are also deficits in belongingness – it could trigger both nostalgia and experimental-induced nostalgia.
b) Subjective vitality
This term refers to one’s conscious experience of possessing energy and aliveness. When it comes to the correlation between nostalgia and this specific factor, research findings vary – some support the claim that individuals who are more prone to nostalgising do report greater vitality, while some don’t report finding that connection.
Competence is a sense of mastery in one’s activities which has been linked to nostalgia across various studies. When the need for competence is thwarted, nostalgia buffers against defensive responses.
This refers to the experience of volition and self-directedness, the self-endorsement of actions. Daily experiences characterised by high levels of autonomy elicited more nostalgia, meaning that nostalgic recollections are autonomy-rich. Kelley et al. (2022) suggest that this means that nostalgising may facilitate autonomy.
e) Meaning of life
Dispositional and situationally-evoked nostalgia is associated with and leads to greater meaning in life.
Nostalgia is related to and engenders optimism, as the latter is more strongly expressed in narratives about nostalgic events. Thus, people prone to nostalgia report feeling more optimistic about the future and their overall well-being (mental and physical health).
g) Subjective well-being
This term refers to the general sense of how well one’s life is going, it is conceptualized as high life satisfaction and positive affect. Nostalgia is associated with greater life satisfaction, and nostalgia interventions have proved to lead to an increase in positive affect.
The Effects of Nostalgising
Kelly and colleagues (2022) suggest that nostalgia and nostalgising bring all these benefits to our psychological well-being because they lead to an increased sense of authenticity of ourselves. Here, authenticity is defined as the alignment with one’s true self. Nostalgic reverie is self-oriented and revolves around personally meaningful memories. It seems that nostalgising, by evoking personally important and formative past experiences, is associated with, and increases felt authenticity.
Authenticity discussion aside, it seems that nostalgising isn’t necessarily a bad thing and shouldn’t be put in the same basket as maladaptive daydreaming. On the contrary, reflecting on our past and emotionally charged memories can help strengthen our sense of continuity of ourselves and it can encourage or at least direct us in our future endeavours.
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Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counselling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Adler, A., Unanue, W., Osin, E., Ricard, M., Alkire, S., & Seligman, M. (2017). Psychological wellbeing. Happiness, 118.
Kelley, N. J., Davis, W. E., Dang, J., Liu, L., Wildschut, T., & Sedikides, C. (2022). Nostalgia confers psychological wellbeing by increasing authenticity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 102, 104379.
Vess, M., Arndt, J., Routledge, C., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2012). Nostalgia as a resource for the self. Self and Identity, 11(3), 273-284.