The Healing Power Of Nostalgia
One of the trends we saw over the course of the pandemic was returning to memories from one’s childhood. The 1977 Fleetwood Mac song Dreams reappeared on music charts worldwide, entertainment industry surveys found that over half of TV consumers rewatched their old favorite shows, and even sales of old Pokémon cards reached record highs.
Believe it or not, there’s a scientific basis to us getting nostalgic during lockdown. Nostalgia may be an emotionally protective force for people in times of crisis. In hindsight, this finding is no stretch of the imagination—just hearing the way people talk about nostalgic memories indicates a deep emotional effect.
Though nostalgia hits us in the gut, evolutionarily, what do humans stand to benefit from indulging in our forever-lost pasts? And perhaps the biggest question of all—is such reminiscing good for us? Should we be actively trying to reflect, or thinking ahead? (Or just living in the moment?)
Joining us to talk about the science of nostalgia, and the important role it has to play in our daily lives, are Clay Routledge, a professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota and Andrew Abeyta, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University-Camden, in Camden, New Jersey.
Routledge and Abeyta share what makes them nostalgic in audio messages below. Plus, you shared sounds, smells, and items that bring you nostalgia. Listen, read, and view your stories in the memory card gallery below.
Transcript: I have a strong nostalgic connection with the original Star Wars movies. I was a kid in the 90s when the original Star Wars movies were re-released in the movie theaters. I remember seeing them in the theaters for the first time and just being blown away and excited—and you know how magical these movies were. So when I see Star Wars toys and memorabilia from the 80s and 90s, it really takes me back to those feelings of wonder and excitement that I had as kids. And Star Wars is something that I still love to this day and I’ve passed on that love to my son and my daughter. One of the things that I like to do with them is go to old toy stores and flea markets and yard sales, and I’m not much of a collector, but I like buying those toys for my kids so that they can enjoy them the way I did.
Transcript: This is going to sound strange, probably. But the smell of gasoline actually makes me nostalgic. I don’t like the smell of gasoline, it’s just that it is something that reminds me of time I spent with my father growing up. I used to mow lawns and do a bunch of workout doors with him, and I remember always getting gasoline on my hands and how difficult it was to get that smell out of your hands. This actually tells us something interesting about nostalgia and that is nostalgia doesn’t always have to be something that’s extremely pleasant or positive in itself. But what it does is it connects us to something that’s positive or meaningful. And so the gasoline even though I don’t really like it, it reminds me of really important time spent with my father who’s no longer alive, which means I I really cherish those memories even more.
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— Tom from Oak Ridge, Tennessee
— Arlia Kroll from South Carolina
This photo from 1987 shows my maternal grandparents with myself and all of my siblings. My gramps, Clifford Kroll, is holding me as a toddler. The photo was taken by my mother, Margaret Bouska. Credit: Arlia Kroll
— _annmg_ on Instagram
— Amanda from Leesburg
— Steve D. from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts
— only_bass_clef on Instagram
— Linda from Richmond, Virginia
— blanketme98 on Instagram
— Mike from Cincinnati, Ohio
— truthunter from Utah
— __vetter_ on Instagram
— Melanie D. from Southern Maryland
My son in the yard at my parents’ home in Colorado, where the smell of an afternoon rain that brings so many emotions happened. (He’s now 21!) Credit: Melanie D.
— Laura from Southern Maryland
Andrew Abeyta is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University-Camden in Camden, New Jersey.
Clay Routledge is a professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. One of the trends we saw over COVID was returning to memories from one’s childhood. Remember the 1977 Fleetwood Mac song, “Dreams?” Well yeah, it reappeared on music charts worldwide. And perhaps you watched one of your favorite old TV shows.
I know what I did. I spent hours digging through old LPs and sifting through photos of faraway vacations. Sometimes even tastes and smells can trigger deeply emotional responses.
ORILLIA: So the smell of cream soda and the taste, which to me always tastes like an extra vanilla-y type of Cool Whip, always immediately reminds me of my gramps.
MIKE: A smell that makes me nostalgic is a the of cut grass. Growing up in a rural area, I got it all the time. And now living in a city, I don’t get it. And it just kind of makes me want to have that longingness for our youthful innocence, where you didn’t have the responsibilities that you do as an adult. And just something about it, it makes it feel like summer.
JOHN DANKOSKY: That was Orillia from South Carolina and Mike from Cincinnati, who share their memories on our VoxPop app. But how do we benefit from indulging in these long lost pasts? Shouldn’t we be living in the moment? Well, believe it or not, there’s a scientific reason for us getting all nostalgic over lockdown. Researchers have found that nostalgia may actually be an emotionally protective force in times of crisis.
Joining us now to talk about the science of nostalgia and the important role it plays in our daily lives is Dr. Clay Routledge, a Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. And Dr. Andrew Abeyta an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University Camden in Camden, New Jersey. Welcome to Science Friday, gentlemen.
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
ANDREW ABEYTA: Thank you for having me.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, I’d like to start first of all with a definition of what nostalgia is. And maybe Clay, you can go first, because I want to make sure that we really understand what we’re talking about here.
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Yeah, so if you just look at the dictionary you will get a definition that reads something like, a sentimental longing for the past, which is pretty generic. But when we study nostalgia and we actually go around and ask people– by now thousands of people all over the world– what they experience when they feel nostalgic and what they mean by nostalgia, it is a sentimental longing.
But it’s specifically for a cherished memory for one’s past. So when people feel nostalgic, they’re reconnecting with something– typically something social involves people– but it’s something important or cherished from their own past that makes them feel comforted, and warm, and happy, and inspired.
JOHN DANKOSKY: The thing that’s interesting though, is I was looking up the definition of it. I came across the root of the word, and it was actually defined early on as a type of sickness. I believe an 18th century Swiss physician described it as a combination of these two Greek words, “nostos” and “algos,” which basically is homecoming and pain.
I don’t know, Andrew. That doesn’t sound so sentimental. That sort of sounds like it’s a problem for people.
ANDREW ABEYTA: Yeah, I think that historically nostalgia tended to get a bad rap in terms of being associated with negative psychological health. But when we think about it nowadays, one of the things that we’ve discovered through the research is that one of the reasons why it tends to get that bad rap is when people are feeling bad– particularly we find when they’re feeling lonely, when they’re feeling sort of alone and disconnected from people– they recruit nostalgic memories.
And those things sort of helps them feel reconnected. So it could be that bad rap is just an artifact of when we feel bad we retreat to that nostalgic place to feel a little bit better. And certainly there is an element of sadness and loss. But one thing I think that’s important that we found in the research is that when people reflect on that sadness and loss, they usually sort of turn it around and look at it in terms of how it’s allowed them to grow, maybe how they have appreciated the thing that they lost.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Clay, talk a bit more about that, about the times and the reasons why people tend to feel nostalgia.
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Yeah, so Andrew’s exactly right when the co-occurrence of nostalgia and suffering was historically thought of as nostalgia causes suffering. And this really reveals the importance of doing systematic scientific research, because what really seems to be going on is the reverse. Suffering causes nostalgia.
So what does that tell us about nostalgia? Well, what it suggests is that when people are experiencing negative state emotional states, whether it’s anxiety or loneliness or meaninglessness, they want to feel better. Right? We naturally want to do something to improve our situation.
So nostalgia appears to be a psychological resource that’s part of our natural mental health immune system that helps us bring to mind things that will make us feel better and also things that motivate us to take better care of ourselves. And so nostalgia seems to really be a response to pain. Not the cause of pain.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And Clay, your own research really suggests that then you can utilize this, you can harness it in some way to purposely induce nostalgia to get some of these positive effects. How exactly does somebody do that?
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Yeah, so this is one of the things that Andrew and I discovered together. Not only does nostalgia make people feel good, but it actually is very motivating. It pushes them forward. And so for example, there are simple things that people can do. And we’ve studied things like listening to music, because most people have the soundtrack to their lives or some songs that connect them to meaningful, cherished memories.
And so that’s one thing that we tend to naturally do. We listen to music. We consume media that reconnects us to the past. But I would also say more engaged or involved, thoughtful exercises such as journaling, scrapbooking, activities that really give you the chance not just to be reminded of these memories, but to really dig into them and process them, to figure out what lessons can you learn from your past that will help you not only feel better now but prioritize what’s going to make your life better in the future. And so I see nostalgia as something that really puts people back on the path of what’s important in life and what should you focus on.
JOHN DANKOSKY: But isn’t part of it when you smell something that smells like your grandmother’s baking, there’s this feeling that I’ll never get that again. It is a thing that is lost to me forever. And the reason the tears run down your cheek is because you feel like grandma is gone and her cookies aren’t coming back. So I mean, how exactly do we process that?
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Yeah I mean, I think that you kind of highlight one of the things that’s really interesting and unique about an emotional experience like nostalgia. And that is things that are really meaningful in life aren’t just simply positive, they’re complicated. And so using your example, sure it makes you sad to think that you will never have that again. But we’ve looked at thousands of nostalgic narratives, and what we often find is that sadness, that sense of loss, is typically followed by triumph, gratitude, inspiration.
So you might say, yeah I’m never going to have that again. But in tribute to my grandmother, I’m going to try to pass on these traditions to the future generation. I’m going to try to innovate, to take something from the past that worked for them and take the meaningful aspect of that and come up with a newer version that’ll work in the modern world and that’ll work for the way we do things now.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Are there ways, Andrew, in which nostalgia can actually be harmful? Or maybe people for whom nostalgia can be an unhealthy emotion or an unhealthy response?
ANDREW ABEYTA: That’s something that we’re just sort of getting into with the research. So I’ll stick on the sort of personal nostalgia side. One of the things that we’ve been finding is that your personality and background can shape your nostalgic experience.
So one of the things that we tend to see is that when people are nostalgic they reflect on their relationships. And their memories contain these really strong themes of love and belonging. But the question always comes up about, what about people who have just terrible relationship histories? Or what about the type of people that are sort of standoffish in relationships?
And one of the things that we found is that these people who are a little bit standoffish in their relationships, their nostalgia tends to be less social. It’s focus is less on these feelings of love and belonging. But in contrast, it focuses more on achievements, on personal successes.
We’ve also found that these people typically nostalgia motivates people to want to connect with others. But with these people who have sort of the standoffish disposition when it comes to relationships, there’s some evidence to indicate that nostalgia might push people in the opposite direction. It might instead push them towards more individualistic aims.
JOHN DANKOSKY: You both talked a lot about personal nostalgia. But I’m wondering, Andrew, if we can talk about historical nostalgia and whether or not this idea that maybe a collective group of people have about an idealized past is something that can be A, classified as nostalgia and B, maybe can be a little detrimental. A whole group of people says, I remember when it was much better back in the 1950s when everything was like that. And we see a lot of that in modern life right now. I mean, what do we make of that type of group nostalgia?
ANDREW ABEYTA: I think certainly it’s similar to what we think about nostalgia as personal nostalgia. It has some of the same qualities. People tend to reflect on events from that past, examples of how that time period maybe was better than the time period they’re living in.
But interestingly, it’s oftentimes things they haven’t experienced. We always get this sort of biased or rosy colored look of the past that may or may not be accurate. But in some ways looking back at another time period has some of the same impacts as personal nostalgia.
So you think about people who are focused on time periods that are not their own. They might be gravitated towards those things, because maybe they feel like the time that they’re living in doesn’t represent who they are, doesn’t represent their values and things like that. And so I think it could potentially be bad from the standpoint of might not really represent an accurate representation of the past. And if that vision of the past excludes certain groups of people, women, people of color, that could be counter to social progress and justice and things like that.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Clay, I’m wondering, can we step back for just a second as we reflect on nostalgia and just talk about the brain activity that’s involved? I mean, is there a place that nostalgia resides in our brain? What’s exactly happening when we’re remembering this past?
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: So there’s not a single place in the brain that is like the nostalgia spot.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Nostalgia zone, yes,
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Right, because this nostalgia involves multiple brain areas and processes. So think about it this way, for 1, the things that trigger nostalgia are often external to us like sensory input. So there’s smells, and sights, and sounds. But also even the internal triggers of nostalgia like negative emotions involve the emotional areas of our brain.
And of course nostalgia, even though it’s emotional, is very much about the self and about autobiographical memory. So it involves the prefrontal cortex, parts of the brain that we associate with memory, the hippocampus. And then when you start thinking about the motivational components of nostalgia that we’ve been talking about, then you start getting into what we call self-regulatory brain processes, which are associated with cognitive control.
And so what that means is oftentimes when we have some kind of negative experience, there’s electrical activity in the brain that triggers like an alarm. Something’s wrong and that pushes us or regulates us to do something about it. And so nostalgia seems to implicate those regions, too. So that’s a long way of saying that it involves lots of different regions of the brain, lots of different processes. Some of them have been discovered and others are ongoing research into the neuroscience of nostalgia.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking about the science of nostalgia with Dr. Andrew Abeyta from the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University Camden and Dr. Clay Routledge. He’s at the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. Are there any emotions that we experienced that you would compare nostalgia to? Anything that it has the same qualities as?
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: I would say gratitude would be one of the things. Certainly gratitude can be a part of nostalgia. We will often see that people reflect on how they’re thankful for having experienced things in their past. So I think nostalgia is similar to show gratitude.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Andrew, we’ve read studies in the past about how our memory works and how the memories that we have right now aren’t actually a memory of the initial event, but it’s a memory of a memory of a memory. And so we have these photocopies, and they’re kind of blurry over time. I’m wondering how that plays into the idea of nostalgia.
That when we talked earlier about grandma’s cookies and the smell, that we’re remembering maybe slightly differently than what was the truth. And I’m wondering how much you’ve studied that and how much memory and the ways in which memories work interact with this idea of nostalgia.
ANDREW ABEYTA: So we do know that when we’re thinking about our past experiences, we tend to have like what we call this rosy reflection bias, where we’re reflecting on the past in a sort of more positive light than perhaps the experience was. So in other words, we might sort of exaggerate how great grandma’s cookies were or how they made us feel. But one of the things we find about nostalgia is that it’s not necessarily the details of the memories that are important but rather the themes and the feelings that those memories conveyed.
JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s interesting, Clay, but I mean I think we’ve mentioned earlier, sometimes people have very difficult pasts. They have hard memories that sometimes bringing them up does not necessarily cause any of the positive associations that we’d like. The fact is, is that many of us have relationships that maybe look rosy over time, but if we were really to dig into them, we’d remember that wasn’t such a good time after all. And having nostalgia for those times seems like it’s a bit contradictory and potentially a little bit psychologically damaging.
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: I think one of the things that is worth thinking about, a good way to think about nostalgia and autobiographical memory more generally, is memory doesn’t work like a tape recorder where we could just roll back the tape and be like a computer and be like, oh this is exactly what happened. And as you suggest, if we did that, we would get a very different picture than how we think about now, because negative emotions do tend to fade faster than positive emotions, which seems to be pretty adaptive. It’s not very healthy to ruminate all the time about all the bad things that happen in your life.
So what seems to happen with autobiographical memory and nostalgia in particular, as it’s almost more like you might think of like a movie making process, which is when you watch a movie you don’t see all the raw footage. That would be boring. When filmmakers make movies and they film I don’t know, hundreds of hours of film, and we see two hours of it. So what they do is they edit. They put together the gist of the story, and it’s just like a movie or nostalgic memories also tend to involve these kind of more triumph over tragedy stories.
So yes, there could be a lot of negative experiences that people have, but nostalgia has a construction kind of quality to it, too, which is we try to pull out what are the lessons we’ve learned. And this helps explain why people can even be very nostalgic about difficult times in their lives.
So we have a bunch of data from older British adults who were children during World War II in Southern England when most of that area of the country was being bombed heavily by Nazi Germany. And they have a lot of nostalgic memories for that time. Not because they thought that was a great time, but it really made them focus on family, what’s important in life, that life is precious, it’s not always certain. And so I think people can learn lessons even from difficult memories, and nostalgia is part of that narrative and constructive process that helps people extract those lessons.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Dr. Clay Routledge is a Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. Dr. Andrew Abeyta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University Camden in Camden, New Jersey. I want to thank you both for joining us on Science Friday. I really appreciate it.
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Thank you for having us.
JOHN DANKOSKY: If you want to hear more personal stories about nostalgia, check out our Science Friday page at sciencefriday.com/nostalgia.