The Power of Nostalgia

It’s that time of year again. Marked by an onslaught of TV adverts showing grinning children in their bright new uniforms and a sense of impending doom, as September begins it is inescapably Back-to-School time. It’s around this time of year that I find myself longing to be 5 years old again, a time when the hardest decisions I had to make were not what I wanted to do with my life but whether to play with the Lego or the Dolls House.


Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I was recently at my best friend’s house and we wanted to celebrate the end of the plight that was our AS levels, so we indulged in alomst an hours worth of dancing to S-Club 7 and watching the S-Club movie. And do you know what? I regret nothing. Because acting like my 5 year old self made me feel ridiculously happy. In an experiment in the Netherlands at Tilburg University, researchers found that listening to songs made people feel not only nostalgic but also warmer physically! (That warm and fuzzy feeling!) define nostalgia as:

‘a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends;a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former placeor time’

Whilst this is an accurate description of what nostalia actually is, I think it could be far more than just a little sentimentality.

Dr Sedikides, a pioneer in this area of research, first experienced what we now call nostalgia when he moved to the UK from the University of North Carolina. He explained how he felt and a clinical psychologist told him he must be depressed. Sedikides is quoted saying: “I told him I did live my life forward, but sometimes I couldn’t help thinking about the past, and it was rewarding,” he says. “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

Nostalgia may have a painful side- it can be sad to think about the past- but it’s net effects seem to be incredibly positive. Studies have shown that nostaligia can counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. People who are nostalgic have been found to be more tolerant and generous to strangers and outsiders. Couples and friends looking back at old memories can feel closer and when people reminisce about the ‘good ol’ days’ they typically become more optimistic about the future. In general, life seems more meaningful when we are nostalgic.

A study by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that nostalgic memories and experiences elicit a series of benefits, to name a few:

  1.   It implants a sense of social connection.
  2.   Evokes positive effectivestates and improves self-esteem.
  3.   One’s attitude or perceptions of one’s self improves.
  4.   One becomes more aware of one’s desirable qualities.
The November 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Wing-Yee Cheung, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, Erica Hepper, Jamie Arndt, and Ad Vingerhoets explored these ideas. In one study, college students wrote a short essay about a past event that made them feel nostalgic or a past event that seemed ordinary. Making people write about a nostalgic event made them feel more nostalgic and also slightly more positive than writing about an ordinary event.  The researchers analyzed the words used in the essays.  A software they used counted different kinds of words that appeared in text. People writing about nostalgic events included more words relating to optimism than people writing about ordinary events. Most people studied at the University of Southampton report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. People say the “nostalgizing” helps them feel better about their lives.
So no one mock me for turning up the S-Club and enjoying all the things of my childhood, i’m nostalgizing! At a time when there are lots of big decisions to make and stressful things to take care of a little optimism and relaxation are pretty nice, bring on that warm and fuzzy feeling!

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