Researchers want to develop therapies that elicit specific memories in order to improve mental wellness.
Over 300 years ago, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer noticed strange behavior among Swiss mercenaries fighting in distant places. Anorexia, despair, and episodes of weeping plagued the soldiers. Many people tried to commit suicide. Hofer believed that the mercenaries were suffering from "nostalgia," which he defined as "a cerebral ailment of fundamentally demonic origin."
Nostalgia's reputation has greatly improved in recent years. The emotion, which Hofer perceived as synonymous with "homesickness," is defined by social psychologists as a sentimental longing for memorable events from one's past. And, according to research, nostalgia can help people cope with dementia, sorrow, and even the disorientation that immigrants and refugees face (SN: 3/1/21).
People may be able to cope better with the COVID-19 epidemic if they have a sense of nostalgia. Researchers discovered that when lonely, unhappy people reminisced about better, pre-pandemic times, they felt happier, according to a study published on September 8 in Social, Psychological, and Personality Science. According to the researchers, the findings show that nostalgia might be used as an antidote to loneliness during the pandemic.
"An excellent parallel is an immune system," says Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton in England, a social psychologist. "While a viral infection can make you sick, it also activates your immune system, which helps you recover. Loneliness lowers happiness, but it also evokes nostalgia, which raises happiness."
Wildschut and colleagues conducted a poll of over 3,700 people in the United States, the United Kingdom, and China to determine how lonely, nostalgic, and happy people were during the early days of the pandemic. Participants responded on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 indicating "not at all" and 7 indicating "very." Surveys differed significantly for each nation, but most questions or statements were answered on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 indicating "not at all" and 7 indicating "extremely." For example, in the week leading up to the poll, participants in the United States ranked how isolated they felt from the rest of the world, how happy they felt relative to their peers, and their general sentiments of nostalgia.
The researchers discovered that persons who scored relatively high in loneliness also scored lower in happiness in all three nations. When the researchers looked into the role of nostalgia, they discovered that persons who didn't have those recollections were the ones who were the least happy.
"Unhappiness and nostalgia are triggered by loneliness. Then, adds coauthor Constantine Sedikides, a social psychologist at the University of Southampton, "unhappiness and nostalgia fight each other."
Meanwhile, the researchers modified people's nostalgia levels in three tests with different groups of U.S. participants, using the spring 2020 lockdown as a proxy for increased loneliness. In one experiment done in April 2020, for example, the researchers gathered slightly over 200 online participants. Half of the participants were made nostalgic by having to write four words describing a specific nostalgic occurrence from their past. The participants were then given three minutes to write freely about how that former experience made them feel. The control group completed the same tasks, but they were about mundane prior experiences.
Participants in the nostalgia group reported slightly higher but statistically significant happiness levels than those in the control group, as judged by the same 1-7 scale employed in the preceding surveys. For example, the researchers discovered that happiness levels in the nostalgia group averaged 5.64, compared to 5.3 in the control group, in a study involving over 200 individuals. According to the study, statistical analysis reveals that nostalgia can explain around 2% of the difference in happiness.
According to personality psychologist Friedrich Götz of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, even slight differences can have huge results when studied across large populations or over time.
"Assume you're a cheerful person every single day of your life. "If you are a happy person, you are more likely to live a fulfilled life," Götz explains. "Since our happiness affects how we act, feel, and think every day of our life, 2% can make a difference."
Researchers investigated the impact of nostalgia on happiness early in the pandemic. Volunteers were asked to recall a special memory and write about it for three minutes. This group scored somewhat higher than participants in the control group who were instructed to recall an average memory when asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 7. (Time 1). Researchers prompted the nostalgia group to think about their memories again a day or two following the original trial. That "nostalgia booster" resulted in greater happiness scores once more (Time 2).
Testing a nostalgic versus ordinary memory’s effect on happiness
Existential psychologists Clay Routledge and colleagues, for example, accessed nostalgia's social component in one study. Participants then completed a "nostalgia inventory," in which they scored how nostalgic they felt about 20 parts of their old lives, such as family and vacations, on a scale of 1 to 5. The researchers then inquired about the types of studies in which they would be interested in participating in the future. Two of the possible studies required participants to meet other people, whereas the other two did not.
The researchers found in the December 2015 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that participants with high levels of nostalgia, particularly those nostalgic for social encounters, were more likely than other participants to choose studies that entailed meeting new people. According to the researchers, this shows that being prone to remembering valuable prior social experiences leads to future social encounters.
"People recalling time with loved ones isn't nostalgia," says Routledge of North Dakota State University in Fargo. "It's encouraging kids to create new social experiences."
However, a significant question is whether nostalgia's advantages may last beyond that transient moment of reminiscence. The benefits of nostalgia in terms of enjoyment dissipated after just a day or two, according to Wildschut's research. When the researchers prompted people to think about that specific memory, the nostalgia-induced bliss lasted for a few days.
Importantly, nostalgia therapy isn't for everyone. Invoking nostalgia in people who see relationships as a source of comfort and stability improved their desire to associate with others, according to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences in October 2019. Individuals who perceived relationships as a source of suffering, on the other hand, experienced the opposite.
"Nostalgia pushed these types of avoidant persons in the opposite direction." According to existential and social psychologist Andrew Abeyta of Rutgers University–Camden in New Jersey, "they were even less likely to wish to connect with people on a deeper level."
When Wildschut and colleagues investigated whether eliciting nostalgia among Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia may boost self-esteem, sense of meaning in life, sentiments of social belonging, and optimism, they found a similar response.
In that study, refugees in one group wrote about significant events from their background, whereas refugees in the other group wrote about mundane incidents. The team concluded in the European Journal of Social Psychology in December 2019 that triggering nostalgia in refugees with high resilience — a trait defined by the ability to withstand and recover from adversity — resulted in more positive emotions than those reported by resilient refugees in a control group. However, while eliciting nostalgia in refugees with low resilience made them feel more socially connected and gave them a greater feeling of continuity in life, nostalgic recollections also made them feel less positive about the future as compared to a low-resilience control group.
"It's a very, very challenging test when you push nostalgia to those lengths," Wildschut says.
Despite the caveats, Wildschut remains hopeful that some sort of nostalgia treatment will be developed. He recalls a long-ago chat with his small daughter. According to Wildschut, when he asked her how long nostalgia lasts, she said, "forever." "What she meant was that the memory exists and may be accessed at any time." In the end, he and other nostalgia researchers seek to find eligible candidates for nostalgia treatment and train them to recall memorable experiences anytime they are feeling down.
X. Zhou et al. The restorative power of nostalgia: Thwarting loneliness by raising happiness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social, Psychological and Personality Science.Posted online September 8, 2021. DOI: 10.1177/19485506211041830.
K. Petkanopoulou, T. Wildschut and C. Sedikides. Nostalgia and biculturalism: How host-culture nostalgia fosters bicultural identity integration. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Vol. 52, February 2021, p.184. DOI: 10.1177/0022022120988345
C.A. Reid et al. The past as a resource for the bereaved: Nostalgia predicts declines in distress. Cognition and Emotion. Published online September 23, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2020.1825339
T. Wildschut, C. Sedikides and D. Alowidy. Hanin: Nostalgia among Syrian refugees. European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 49, December 2019, p. 1368. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2590.
A. Abeyta, T. Nelson, and C. Routledge. The pushes and pulls of the past: The effects of attachment-related avoidance and nostalgia on approach-oriented social goals. Personality and Individual Differences. Vol. 149, October 15, 2019, p. 200. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2019.06.008.
S. Ismail et al. Psychological and mnemonic benefits of nostalgia for people with dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Vol. 65, November 4, 2018, p.1327, DOI: 10.3233/JAD-180075
A. Abeyta, C. Routledge, and J. Juhl. Looking back to move forward: Nostalgia as a psychological resource for promoting relationship goals and overcoming relationship challenges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 109, December 2015, p. 1029. DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000036.