You Can’t Go Home, But You Can Feel Better Here: On the Positive Power of Nostalgia

Ah, remember summer days as a kid? No computers, no snapchat, no cares—just the smell of fresh cut grass and the feeling of warm sunshine. You’d run home for dinner with the family and group around the TV before heading off to bed and doing it all again.

If you’re feeling nostalgic right now, you could have a serious mental illness. Or at least, you would according a 17th century physician. You see, when it was first coined by a Swiss doctor, nostalgia—longing for “nostos,” or “home” in Greek—was attributed to shell shocked veterans and connected to depression. Johannes Hoffer, the doctor who named it, described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” and postulated it might be due to damaged ear drums. Up into the 20th century, even, nostalgia was classified as “immigrant psychosis” or a form of “melancholia.”

But nostalgia, as we know it, is a common occurrence, and it’s something that popular cultural (seen a Spielberg movie lately?) doesn’t treat like a disease. Thanks to advances in research over the past 15 years, nostalgia has been proven a positive emotion.

The NY Times spoke with Dr. Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton in England about his decade long study into the phenomenon of longing for home.

“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times, but Dr. Sedikides emphasizes that nostalgia is not the same as homesickness. It’s not just for those away from home, and it’s not a sickness, despite its historical reputation.

His research also turned up some other fascinating facts on the feeling of nostalgia. First, he found it to be universal and similar—people from across the globe looked back unto times with friends and families and natural experiences fondly. Secondly, it occurs starting even from a young age (7). But mostly the study found that, for those feeling lonely or sad, nostalgia can be a great comfort. And even though a sense of loss permeates your thoughts, that negative is outweighed by the positive feelings of belonging and affiliation—and it actually helps one to be more open and generous with one’s current surroundings.

Further studies confronting subjects with philosophies papers on the meaninglessness of life found that nostalgia can be a powerful defense against a nihilistic helplessness, explaining how the nostalgic are better able to cope with death.

Those warm memories of home can provoke people to be warmer. Experiments found subjects in a cold room more likely to get nostalgic and, similarly, others who listened to their favorite songs to get physically warmer.

Dr. Sedikides and other researchers caution us, though, to not get caught up in the past.

Nostalgia does have its painful side—it’s a bittersweet emotion—but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

There’s a difference between saying that the past was inherent better—neurotic nostalgia—and finding meaning in the past. The latter can be extremely beneficial for finding consistency during change and meaning during dire straits.

Follow this link for a stream of, in this writer’s humble opinion, the greatest piece of nostalgia, from the first season of the Twilight Zone.


What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows” by John Tierney, The New York Times

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