Can’t Fight This Feeling: The Enduring Power of Nostalgia

by Kristen Knight

What compels us to buy tickets for the reunion tour of our old favorite band?  (For me, that band is the Pixies.) Why do we fervently binge-watch this year’s return of the 1990s cult favorite television series Twin Peaks? (Looking at you, Gen X-ers.) Why are we counting down the days until the next season of Stranger Things, a show steeped in references to the 1980s, is released?

At least partly, it is nostalgia. The purveyors of pop culture, advertising, and politics know well the power of nostalgia, and as each generation gets a bit older, they leverage that power to sell products to those eager to recapture a bit of their glory days. But as research suggests, the power of nostalgia can have ramifications beyond ticket sales and television ratings.

People of many ages experience nostalgia, which is described in the APA Dictionary of Psychology as “a longing to return to an earlier period . . . recalled as being better than the present in some way” or “to return to a place to which one feels emotionally bound (e.g., home or a native land)” (VandenBos, 2015). At one time, this longing was regarded as an illness. APA’s first president, G. Stanley Hall, ominously discussed the power of the “disease” of nostalgia in his 1904 book about adolescents:

Calhoun, Tuke, Willis, Peters, Kline, and others, have studied the symptoms of home-sickness, or nostalgia, and agree in calling it one of the most complex and distressing of diseases when severe. It destroys the appetite, brings nausea, dizziness, palpitation,  hallucination, localized pains, sensations of smothering, night sweats, sobbing; in boarding schools, factories, in camps of young soldiers, in hospitals, and on distant voyages, it is especially aggravated by nightfall, katydids, frogs, crickets, the sough of the wind, a long storm, thunder, a letter, waking from dreams of home, a friend, or chance reminder of it, and may swoop down upon the soul like an obsession, bringing melancholy and sometimes even death in its train. (p. 380)

More recently, however, nostalgia has come to be viewed as distinct from homesickness, and some psychologists believe it may have a positive, protective power.  Recent research has highlighted a broad array of possible benefits, from boosting psychological resources such as self-esteem to buffering the effects of negative feelings or experiences (Baldwin, Biernat, & Landau, 2014).  In the book The Psychology of Meaning, APA authors Clay Routledge, Constantine Sedikides, Tim Wildschut, and Jacob Juhl (2013) point out the value in looking both forward and backward as we make our way through life:

People admonish one another to live in [the] moment, plan for the future, and not to dwell on the past. Certainly, there is value to this advice. Appreciating the present can be rewarding, and goal-related behavior that paves the way for a better future is advantageous. However, turning to the past may be beneficial as well. Historians like to remind us that there is much to learn from the past. We, as psychologists, also propose that the past should not be underrated. Reflecting nostalgically on the past betters one’s affective state, bolsters and protects the positivity of the self, strengthens a sense of social connectedness, and . . . imbues life with purpose and meaning. (p. 312)

All the more reason to crank up those old tunes and sing along.

 

References

Baldwin, M., Biernat, M., & Landau, M. J. (2015). Remembering the real me: Nostalgia offers a window to the intrinsic self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(1), 128-147. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038033

Hall, G. S. (1904). Social instincts and institutions. In G. S. Hall, Adolescence its psychology and its relations to physiology, anthropology, sociology sex, crime, religion and education, Vol. 2, pp. 363-448). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/10618-007

Routledge, C., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., & Juhl, J. (2013). Finding meaning in one’s past: Nostalgia as an existential resource. In K. D. Markman, T. Proulx, & M. J. Lindberg (Eds.), The psychology of meaning (pp. 297-316). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/14040-015

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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