IS it healthy to dwell in the past? Up until about 15 years ago most psychologists would have suggested probably not. The habit of living in memory rather than the present, of comparing how things once were with how things are now, was for several centuries thought at best a trait to avoid and at worst a root cause of depressive illness. Nostalgia was the soldiers’ malady — a state of mind that made life in the here and now a debilitating process of yearning for that which had been lost: rose-tinted peace, happiness, loved ones. It had been considered a psychological disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th century Swiss army physician who attributed the fragile mental and physical health of some troops to their longing to return home — nostos in Greek, and algos, the pain that attended thoughts of it.
Since the turn of this century, however, things have been looking up for nostalgia. That shift began, to a considerable degree, in the mind of an émigré academic called Constantine Sedikides. Greek by birth, he worked for many years at the University of North Carolina in the United States but in 1999 was transplanted to the University of Southampton, where he had taken up the role of professor of social and personality psychology. Like all psychology professors, Sedikides’ default subject of study was his own mental process, and in the first months of arriving on the English south coast he was struck by a new, startling habit of mind. A few times a week he found himself overwhelmed with a sense of his recent home in North Carolina. The atmosphere of his old department, the memory of summer evenings with family and friends in Chapel Hill could be triggered unexpectedly and flood his senses with sounds and smells. The thing was, though, these memories did not, when Sedikides analysed them, make him feel unhappy in Southampton — far from it. Instead, he decided, they made him feel good about himself, helped to make sense of his journey. They were a profoundly rooting experience of some kind. This nostalgia seemed less a malady of the past than a powerful stimulant to feel optimistic about the future. Sedikides decided to investigate it further.
In the decade or so since, Sedikides tells me in his office in Southampton, nostalgia has become a focus of inquiry in university departments across the globe, a whole new field of academic study that takes in sociology and political science as well as psychology. It’s a claim backed by the hundreds of recent academic papers thrown up by a quick internet search. Southampton remains a centre of this nostalgia growth industry. Sedikides works in tandem with Dr Tim Wildschut, a senior researcher and another émigré, from Utrecht in the Netherlands. “Every week, to begin with, we were surprised by what we found,” Sedikides says. “We quickly built a program of research around it.” Some of the research has proved the universality of the feeling itself — a new study shows the commonality of nostalgia effects in 18 countries across five continents. Among these measurable effects, nostalgia is shown to be both a driver of empathy and social connectedness and a potent internal antidote for loneliness and alienation. This has sparked nostalgia-based therapies for illnesses that include clinical depression and perhaps Alzheimer’s, about which Sedikides and Wildschut remain cautiously optimistic.
Sedikides talks of nostalgia as the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future” and a mental state “absolutely central to human experience”. Through the lens of their research, it seems nostalgia is a kind in-built-in neurological defence mechanism that can be marshalled to protect against negative thoughts and situations. In this sense, must it have a strong correlation with times of hardship and difficulty? “That is certainly what we find,” Wildschut says. “Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states; for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present. What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity in the past. It is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states. It serves to promote emotional equilibrium, homeostasis.”
Some of this research is historical. Wildschut was intrigued by strong anecdotal evidence of women in concentration camps during the Holocaust who “responded to starvation by waxing nostalgic about shared meals with their families and arguing about recipes and so on”. Wildschut speculated about this habit being an “as if” loop — a mechanism by which your mind can temporarily affect your perceived body state — linking it to research which showed people were significantly more likely to generate nostalgic emotions in a cold room than a warm one, and that those emotions had the effect of making the room seem warmer. When he published these findings, he was contacted by a concentration camp survivor who said he had been trying to explain this process to people ever since the war ended. “This is what we did,” the man said. “We used our memories to temporarily alter our perception of the state we were in. It was not a solution, but the temporary change in perception allowed you to persevere just a bit longer. And that could be crucial.” It seems that the particular bittersweet combination of nostalgic memory is vital to such effects. Sedikides and Wildschut divide thinking about the past into three distinct areas: rumination, counterfactual thinking and nostalgia. Rumination and counterfactual thinking are related to bitterness, and perhaps to depression — for instance, using memories to remind oneself of how poorly one has been treated or to reinforce regret. Nostalgia, Wildschut says, is distinct from these negative memories in that “it is always related to intimacy maintenance — I want to remind myself of the people who are no longer here and what they meant to me. It serves to remind you of what intimacy you have achieved and therefore what you are capable of ”.
“In the grouping of past-oriented thought,” he sums up, “nostalgia stands out as adaptive.” In community experiments, research suggests nostalgia helps build resources such as optimism or inspiration or creativity, which are correlated with mental fortitude. “In difficult situations,” Sedikides says, “it appears that nostalgia grounds you. It gives you a base on which to evaluate the present as a temporary state, and in doing so it perhaps builds resilience. Though, obviously, we cannot rule out the alternative — that resilient people are able to access nostalgia more effectively … ”
In many ways, a university is the perfect laboratory for this kind of inquiry. Nostalgia is perhaps at its most active and useful at what Wildschut calls “life’s major transitions”. Leaving home for the first time, increasingly to study, is among the most powerful of these. So each autumn Sedikides and Wildschut are happily presented with a new cohort of the homesick and the displaced to help them with their research. They have developed a series of experiments to measure the effects of nostalgia on a micro scale. They induce nostalgia by several techniques, but chiefly by getting individuals to describe one particularly meaningful or positive memory, something that the subjects frequently refer back to, which is called “vivid autobiographical recall methodology”. Sedikides and Wildschut, along with other researchers in the field, have also done pilot testing with large group populations identifying melodies and lyrics in songs that elicit nostalgia — contrasted with songs that elicit happiness. (Nostalgic songs score equally with purely hedonistic songs on positive feelings evoked, but the nostalgic songs also score much higher on sadness.) A classic example, and a song that has been used in other studies, is Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days (originally a Russian folk tune), but songwriters have always tapped the power of nostalgic yearning. In Ethiopia, the word for nostalgia is tizita, Wildschut points out, which is also the word for a style of music. “When you hear the music you have no doubt, even for someone who knows nothing about Ethiopia or its music. It presses all those buttons. Longing, swaying.”
The stories students tell also share those unmistakable elements. “Mostly nostalgic narratives, whether collective or personal, are predominantly positive experiences,” Wildschut says of his students’ memories. “They do have elements of loss, maybe even trauma and sadness. But that is posed in a redemption sequence: ‘I lost my grandmother, but we went to the funeral and realised how close we are as a family’.”
In strongly nostalgic states, individuals are shown to be more likely to commit to volunteering or other expressions of altruism. Their sense of the value of money is weakened, leading them to make wilful purchases. Couples use shared nostalgia narratives to create and strengthen bonds between them. In group situations, those with induced nostalgia not only tend to feel more closely bonded with the group but also more willing to form intimate associations with strangers and to be freer in their thinking. In one experiment, subjects in whom nostalgia had been induced were asked to set up a room for a meeting — those in a nostalgic frame of mind consistently set up the chairs closer together.
In another experiment, those in nostalgic moods were asked to write essays, compared in blind tests with those of peers who’d had no induced feelings of nostalgia. The essays written in a nostalgic state were adjudged to be more imaginative and creative (storytellers, professionnostalgiasics, have long intuited this, as have poets).
Talking to wildschut and sedikides, I’m intrigued to know if those lazy pejoratives about forward- and backward-looking cultures have any merit. Are some nations more prone to nostalgia than others? They suggest the evidence is not yet solid — “That is part of the next five-year plan” — but there is some credibility in the hypothesis that nostalgia may have something to do with how old and settled a culture is. “Nostalgia is more prevalent in China than in the West,” Wildschut explains. “Our Chinese and Japanese colleagues tell us that in their cultures, children as young as seven or eight will normally use the words for nostalgia. In the West, children won’t identify it spontaneously, though it can be explained to them.”
Come children have higher sense of nostalgia than others. It seems to me that as a parent you habitually and subconsciously invoke nostalgia as one technique of helping children through difficult periods — reminding them to think of happier moments as a defence against the present and a hope for the future. Is there evidence to suggest, I wonder, that part of successful parenting lies in trying to lay down experiences that children can refer back to and use in this way — is that, for example, the impulse behind memorable birthdays and holidays? “When we looked at children,” Wildschut says, “we started to try to understand why one child might have a high sense of nostalgia and another child a low sense. One of the strongest predictors is the parents’ use of mental time travel. We first did this with students. We measured nostalgia proneness, then we asked them: ‘When you were a child, did your parents encourage you to think about past things that had been fun and also future things that you would do?’ Those who said their parents had done that a lot were always the highest nostalgpyronesnes. We were also able to find that correlation in children in the present, when we asked them: ‘Do the people at home encourage you to think a lot about events of the past and the future?’ ” The correlation proved other connections, too. “The ability and encouragement to access nostalgia also builds gratitude and connectedness towards others,” Sedikides says. “It tends to make children less selfish.”
One of the ironies of parenting is that however hard we might try to engender such feelings, we have little control over what childhood experiences children will actually return to, what memories they will use to create their sense of identity. I suppose reinforcing some formative positive experiences over and over is one way of attempting to manipulate that subconscious selection process? Wildschut concurs. If there were to be therapeutic uses of nostalgia, he suggests, they would have to include methods to direct victims of one kind of trauma or another to positive memories. “I think one of the strengths of nostalgia is that even if they have not had a good childhood, most people have at least one nostalgic memory that they cherish and that they can use repeatedly. Someone once asked me: ‘How long do these effects last?’ My 11-year-old daughter said: ‘They last your entire life!’ She’s right, too. Once positive memories are instantiated they might have only represented half an hour of your entire childhood, but you can dwell on them and return to them forever.”
Nostalgia in this sense, I say, is like choosing the neural pathways on which you want to tread most often. “Exactly,” Sedikides replies. “It is like creating an inexhaustible bank account which is there for you if you want to withdraw from it. Memory is often made out of doing surprising things. That is often what inspiring teachers do. We call it ‘anticipatory nostalgia’. If at a social event people do something crazy, with benevolent intent, then people will remember it. It’s what’s called having good anticipatory nostalgia skills. They know what they’re doing.” Of course advertisers and political speechwriters have long understood the power of collective nostalgia. Is it not the fact that such feelings can also manipulate us into doing things, buying things, voting for things, that in more coldly rational states we might resist? The nostalgists concede this danger certainly exists, particularly in group situations. In one study, Wildschut and Sedikides induced a nostalgic state in a group of Greek students at the university, using songs and so on. In this state, the cohort’s love of all things Greek — food, art, music — was “measured as off the scale”. Somewhat more worryingly, however, the products and food of other countries were “also denigrated much more sharply than if a nostalgic state had not been induced”. So nostalgia can be a nationalistic, chauvinistic tool? “That is why we have to tread carefully if we use this as a group therapy,” Wildschut says. “Anything that increases the bonds within the group also has the power to increase the negativity towards other groups. But it is possible to do it in a strategic way. In one series of studies, we asked people to think of a nostalgic event that involved a person who is overweight. Most people could think of a friend or family member, and we later measured their attitudes towards overweight people as a whole — because there are terrible statistics that reveal negative stereotypes. We found the nostalgic participants showed improved attitudes toward the entire group.”
They did the same study for people with mental illness and for the elderly, with the same result. They are now in the process of putting together a multidisciplinary team of experts, including people who specialise in post-traumatic stress and depression and early-stage Alzheimer’s, to see if nostalgia inducement can play a part in a therapeutic program. “We are going in the right direction, but we are some way off,” Sedikides says. Have they met with opposition from different branches of psychology? “We met with disbelief from reviewers when we started to submit papers,” Sedikides says. “It was: ‘We don’t believe your findings’, even though they had been replicated in seven experiments. The stigma about nostalgia was quite pervasive in the academic community. But after about ten years we didn’t hear that any more.”
How long-lasting are the effects of nostalgia therapy likely to be in individuals? “We are involved in another study in the US looking at the benefits of group nostalgia in organisations,” Wildschut says. “Part of that is concerned with whether people who experience psychological nostalgic benefits on Monday are still feeling them by Friday. And [we’re] also to look at the importance of other opportunities for nostalgia. Our short-term goal is to try to convince the bosses to bring back the idea of the Christmas party.” The Christmas party? “In our research,” Sedikides explains, “the Christmas party is among the most powerful engines of nostalgia — the shared positive memories of what we did at the Christmas party can sustain morale for a long time. Organisations are incredibly shortsighted to think about cutting them over costs.” And beyond that? “Well,” Sedikides says, “we think nostalgia is one of those goldmines that can connect micro and macro thinking across a range of disciplines. We need to develop ways to measure inherent nostalgia — and then there’s the question of whether nostalgia is inherently conservative or liberal. These,” he says, “are the things that keep us awake at night … ”
This article first appeared The Courier Mail, 17 January 2015.