Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Nostalgia and emotion
What is nostalgia and its relationship with emotion?
Overview[edit | edit source]
"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste;
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end." (p. 47)
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet #30
"...captured sublimely this intricate pattern of relationships between nostalgia, redemption, and affect in his Sonnet #30." — Wildschut et al. (2006), on William Shakespeare
There are many points in our lives in which we may experience the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. Whether at a school reunion or a family holiday, during a toast or a eulogy, in times of grief or sorrow - the instances in which we reflect on significant emotional points in our history can help shape who we become. But what exactly do we mean when we say the words "I am feeling rather ... nostalgic today"? What purpose does nostalgia serve, other than to remind us of days past? How can we harness nostalgia to improve our social and emotional lives?
Nostalgia is a nuanced and complex emotion, broadly defined as a sentimental longing for the past (Sedikides & Wildschut, 2016; Wildschut et al., 2006). It can be seen as a yearning desire for an aspect of times gone by that cannot be attained, simply because it is impossible to go back in time and retrieve it; it includes both the experience of happiness that we feel when we think of these "better days", and the sense of loss when we realise we cannot go back to them (Pickering & Keightley, 2006). Nostalgia is different than just remembering: as explained by Batcho (2007),it is possible to bring to mind the past without becoming nostalgic, but nostalgia cannot be felt without the act of remembering. Though nostalgia in the modern sense is considered to be relatively ubiquitous, it has gone unnoticed by psychologists until the 1990s (Sedikides et al., 2015). Since then, nostalgia has been examined with more focus and depth, initially from a business and advertising perspective (Holak & Havlena, 1992; Holak & Havlena, 1998), and socio-cultural perspectives (Pickering & Keightley, 2006), and then more recently from the perspective of psychological science (Wildschut et al., 2006; Routledge et al., 2008; Sedikides et al., 2016; Vess et al., 2012; Zhou et al., 2008). In a relatively short amount of time, the phenomenon of nostalgia has gone from being mostly overlooked to becoming a rich area of scientific inquiry that is still blossoming today.
This chapter describes the history, content, causes, functions and theoretical basis of nostalgia, in order to answer the overarching question: "how can we understand and improve our motivational and emotional lives using psychological science?". This will be done through the applications of theories in emotion psychology, as well as examining some of the functions of nostalgia in order to better understand our pasts, harness its emotional potential in the present, with the purpose of using that potential to help shape our futures.
Etymology and history[edit | edit source]
The word nostalgia is Greek in origin, derived from the words nostros, meaning ‘to return home’, and algos, indicating pain or aching (Holak & Havlena, 1992; Wildschut et al., 2006). This is reflective of the way nostalgia is typically described as having both positive and negative affective qualities, which in combination produce an experience that is bittersweet in nature (Batcho, 2007; Holak & Havlena, 1992; Wildschut et al., 2006). Coining of the term is credited to Johannes Hofer, a physician of the late 1800s who studied what he called nostalgia in his patients (Wildschut et al., 2006; Sedikides et al., 2008). Hofer described nostalgia as a medical condition, the symptoms of which were similar to those surrounding anxiety, including increased heart rate, breathing disturbances, high blood pressure, sweating, and vomiting (McCann, 1941). This meant that the initial study of nostalgia treated it as more of a pathology, considering it to be a form of intense homesickness. As nostalgia was observed to co-occur with negativity or unfortunate circumstances, scholars concluded that nostalgia must be the cause of this ill-health; however, as research into nostalgia progressed, it became more likely that it arises in such negative circumstances not as a cause, but as a coping mechanism (Sedikides & Wildschut, 2016).
Modern use of the term has been de-medicalised, and nostalgia is typically no longer thought of as a disorder, but as a common emotion that anyone can regularly experience (Wildschut et al., 2006). Recent research into nostalgia has emphasised its potential benefits, such as its ability to raise optimism, enhance creativity, guard against negative emotions such as loneliness, and be used as an affirmation of self-worth in times of existential crisis (Cheung et al., 2013; Juhl et al. (2010; Sedikides & Wildschut, 2016; Zhou et al., 2008).
Neurological basis[edit | edit source]
Though the neurological underpinnings of nostalgia are not well understood, brain activity in the temporal pole, the superior frontal gyrus, and the amygdala have been shown to occur when participants are played music which they previously identify as nostalgic (Barrett & Janata, 2016).
Frequency and triggers[edit | edit source]
In a study by Wildschut et al. (2006), 80% of participants said that they experienced nostalgia at least once a week. Nostalgia is also experienced relatively consistently across cultures, with most cultural groups having access to words similar in meaning to what is referred to as nostalgia in English (Hepper et al., 2014). It has also been shown that certain individuals are more nostalgia-prone than others, in that they more frequently engage in nostalgic reverie (Batcho, 2007; Routledge et al., 2008)
Some of the triggers for nostalgic experience include negative affect, social interactions (both general and with a shared past experience), sensory stimuli such as certain smells, and specific objects (Waskul, Vannini & Wilson, 2009; Wilschut et al., 2006). Music, especially music which is autobiographically relevant and elicits a high number of emotions, has also been identified as a trigger of nostalgia (Barrett et al., 2010). Interestingly, there is no definite evidence that certain songs are more "nostalgic" than others, despite the popularity of a given song; a song's ability to evoke nostalgia is specifically linked to a person's associations with that song to their personal history (Barrett et al., 2010).
Measurement[edit | edit source]
Two measures commonly used to assess nostalgia are the Southampton Nostalgia Scale (SNS; Routledge et al., 2008), a self-report inventory of nostalgia proneness, and Batcho's (1995) 20-item nostalgia inventory, featuring participants' ratings of how much they feel a sense of nostalgia when they think of certain people, objects and places. Nostalgia can be difficult to manipulate due to the great personal significance that a stimulus must possess in order to evoke nostalgic experience, which varies on an individual level (Batcho, 2007). It is for this reason that studies investigating nostalgia often rely on participants to generate their own imagery or story of a time in which they felt nostalgic, rather than providing concrete stimuli. This does invite individual differences in memory accessibility or everyday mood that may potentially have an effect on data, so studies will typically also administer mood or temperament inventories alongside their measures of nostalgia. Studies will also provide a definition of nostalgia to focus their participants' recollections. An example of a nostalgia manipulation used by Wildschut et al. (2006) is found below, followed by a non-nostalgic control manipulation:
Content of nostalgia[edit | edit source]
There are several common themes that arise when the content of nostalgic experiences is examined. Nostalgia content can be divided into two overarching topics: objects, emotions and the self.
Objects: People, places and things[edit | edit source]
Nostalgic memories predominantly focus around people, typically the significant relationships in a person's life such as family, friends, partners, and sometimes pets (Holak & Havlena, 1992; Wildschut et al., 2006). Memories containing now deceased relatives are common (Holak & Havlena, 1992). Family is a heavy focus of nostalgia for most people regardless of their age, however after the ago of 50 the significance of family increases dramatically (Batcho, 1995). Nostalgic experience usually, but not exclusively, focuses on the participants’ early lives, the period of their childhood or adolescence. Other objects that are a feature of nostalgic recollections, such as photographs, are typically also associated with important relationships (Wildschut et al., 2006). Physical objects tend to be less salient images in nostalgic memory for older individuals, consistent with the increase in the importance of family and relationships (Batcho, 1995; Wildschut et al., 2006).
The self[edit | edit source]
Nostalgia is a highly self-relevant emotion as the self is almost always a primary figure in nostalgic experience (Wildschut et al., 2006). People will generally describe themselves as playing a major role in their narrative of a nostalgic experience, and only occasionally as having the role of "outside observer" (Wildschut et al., 2006). This salience of the self is one aspect that distinguishes nostalgia from other similar states, such as simple remembering or reminiscence (Vess et al., 2012). Similarly, inducing nostalgia has been shown to bring positive self-attributes into awareness, as well as boost self-esteem when navigating adverse events and situations (Vess et al., 2012).
The salience of the self in nostalgic reverie could also account for why nostalgia, emotion and the self are so intertwined. According to cognitive theories of emotion, appraisal (the evaluation of events according to how self-relevant they are), is a vital cognitive process in that it may cause, shape and change emotions (Moors et al., 2013). In appraisal theory, emotions are elicited by events that are appraised as having great personal significance, often surrounding a person's well-being (Moors et al., 2013). As nostalgia takesmakes us think about past events that were highly self-relevant, and self-relevance may be the root of what generates emotion, the self may be what causes certain events to be more likely to be the subject of nostalgia.
Emotions[edit | edit source]
In terms of emotion, nostalgic experience is relatively complex, eliciting both negative and positive emotional responses. These emotions do not necessarily compete with one another, but often combine to produce the bittersweet experience that nostalgia is commonly described as exhibiting (Holak & Havlena, 1998; Sedikides et al., 2008). Research into the affective quality of nostalgia suggests that nostalgia is mostly positive, but with a few significant negative components (Holak & Havlena, 1998).
Positive vs. negative emotions[edit | edit source]
Some of the positive emotions commonly experienced in nostalgia are joy, love, affection, tenderness, and thankfulness (Holak & Havlena, 1998). Specifically, pleasure has been linked to a strong intensity of nostalgia, while dominance has been shown to have a negative association with intensity (Holak & Havlena, 1998). Content analyses have shown that nostalgic descriptions often contain overall more positive than negative expressions of emotion (Wildschut et al., 2006). Nostalgia-prone individuals also tend to prefer happy song lyrics and indicate them as being more meaningful, though it is unclear whether this is a result of nostalgia or some other mediating personality factor (Batcho, 2007).
Negative emotions associated with nostalgia include unhappiness and loss (Holak & Havlena, 1998). Musical triggers of nostalgia were found to often be accompanied by general feelings of sadness (Barrett et al., 2010). Notably, analysis of the content of nostalgic states has found that nostalgic experiences are often redemptive in nature: an initially negative event is described, but the recall progresses to focus on some positive aspect of the event (Wildschut et al., 2006). For example, remembering a loved one’s funeral will contain primarily negative affect, with feelings of grief and sadness, but the family bonding that came out of the negative event may elicit positive emotions.
Appraisal theory also holds relevance here, in that it explains why people can experience multiple, seemingly opposing emotions at once to the same event (Reeve, 2014). Individuals can appraise different aspects of the one event in different ways, and each of these appraisals can elicit a different emotion; for example, a nostalgic memory about a family holiday may elicit joy at the time spent with loved ones,
Functions, uses and benefits of nostalgia[edit | edit source]
Emotions serve several social and adaptive functions (Keltner & Gross, 1999), and nostalgia is no exception. This section contains just some of the functions of nostalgia that have been investigated, which can be divided into two broad categories: those which enhance positive qualities, and those which guard against negative emotions. Though organised as such for the purpose of clarity, these benefits of nostalgia frequently interact with one another, mutually boosting other positive qualities in an interconnected fashion. Table 1 summarises the research into the functions of nostalgia and their key findings. A few of the functions in the table are not covered in-depth in this chapter, but can be accessed as further reading from the references list.
|Enhancing positive qualities||Optimism||Cheung et al. (2013)||
|Prosocial behaviour||Turner, Wildshut & Sedikides (2011)
Turner et al. (2013)
Zhou et al. (2012)
|Creativity||Van Tilburg, Sedikides, & Wildschut (2015)||
|Approach motivation||Stephan et al. (2014)||
|Preventing negative emotions||Loneliness||Zhou et al. (2008)||
|Fears of death||Juhl et al. (2010)
Routledge et al. (2008)
Sedikides et al. (2016)
Enhancing positive qualities:[edit | edit source]
Raising optimism[edit | edit source]
Since nostalgia involves fond recollections of the past, it can also be used to increase positive perceptions of the future. Similar to findings that nostalgic experiences commonly contain positive emotions (Holak & Havlena, 1998), a study conducted by Cheung et al. (2013) found that, when nostalgia is induced, participants scored higher on the Revised Life Orientation Test, a measure of global optimism, through assessing expectations of the future. They noted, however, that self-esteem and social connectedness appear to mediate the link between optimism and nostalgia, to the extent that the effect on optimism could be more of a positive side effect of boosting these other factors.
[edit | edit source]
Nostalgia's combined emphasis both on relationships and on the self as a salient figure indicate that it could be useful to boost positive interactions with other people. This was found to be the case in a study by Zhou et al. (2012), who found an increase during nostalgia of not only giving intentions, but also nostalgic participants were more likely to carry out their intentions by donating to charities. Though individual levels of empathy was also an important mediator, nostalgia had more of an effect than just empathy alone. Nostalgia has the potential to be more effective in increasing charitable behaviour than other forms of behavioural influence, such as foot-in-the-door strategies and social recognition, in that it is a more internalised and personally-relevant source of helping behaviour (Zhou et al., 2012). Nostalgia has also proven useful in combating negative attitudes, such as the stigma surrounding overweight and mentally ill people (Turner, Wildshut & Sedikides, 2011; Turner et al., 2013).
Preventing negative emotions[edit | edit source]
Loneliness[edit | edit source]
As nostalgia is a socially-relevant emotion, it can be used to indirectly combat feelings of sadness and isolation associated with loneliness by boosting perceptions of social connectedness and support (Zhou et al., 2008). When nostalgia is induced, people will list more friends than when in control conditions (Zhou et al., 2008). In this way, nostalgia acts as a psychological resource that is drawn upon in times of need. This is consistent with other findings that a common trigger of nostalgia is negative affect (Wildschut et al., 2006). Nostalgia has been shown to be used by “resilient” people, who readily employ this strategy to reduce loneliness (Zhou et al., 2008). Nostalgia-prone individuals also indicate preference for relationship or other-oriented song lyrics (Batcho, 2007).
Fears about death[edit | edit source]
Similar to findings that nostalgia can bolster perceptions of self-continuity, a person’s perceptions of their past contributing to the present (Sedikides et al., 2016), it has also been found to serve existential functions, such as combating fears of death (Juhl et al., 2010; Routledge et al., 2008). In a study conducted by Juhl et al. (2010), nostalgia-prone participants relied less on other strategies to find meaning their life in the face of thinking about death, such as investing in collective social identities. Nostalgia-prone individuals also experienced less fear about death when death-related thoughts were elicited (Juhl et al., 2010). Further, it is harder to elicit death thoughts in participants who were nostalgic that in people who are not (Routledge et al., 2008).
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
Nostalgia is a longing for the past that often contains both positive and negative emotional components. Though once pathologized, it has come to be recognised as a normal and healthy form of ruminating behaviour that most people engage in throughout their lifetime. Negative affect, social stimuli, smells and music are all common triggers of nostalgia. Nostalgia has been shown to have several functions, including, but not limited to, raising optimism, increasing prosocial behaviour, preventing loneliness and mitigating fears of death.
As demonstrated by the research into its functions and benefits, nostalgia and the emotions it connects us with has substantial potential to improve our social and emotional lives. The simultaneous positive and negative emotional valences that nostalgia holds make it a fascinating area of research for emotion psychologists, and while appraisal theory makes a start in explaining these aspects, there is still much to learn. Future research into the neurological basis of nostalgia, as well as into its underlying structure and adaptive significance, should help us to understand this phenomenon and harness it to its full capacity.
References[edit | edit source]
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