Why do humans get nostalgic?

Nostalgia is one of my greatest weaknesses, I think. For such a long time I’ve been severely missing aspects of my childhood, and often these memories are a source of depression. For me, nostalgia prevents me from moving forward. However, I know many other people experience nostalgia as a calming mechanism and can easily look back on happy memories without any emotional turmoil in the present. “‘When you’re nostalgic about something, there’s a little bit of a sense of loss—[the moment has] happened, it’s gone—but usually the net result is happiness,’ says Clay Routledge, a social psychologist at North Dakota State University, who, with several other researchers, has studied the emotion extensively over the past decade.” Either way, experiencing nostalgia definitely influences mood, and can affect how we live our lives. So where does it come from?

Routledge conducted a study on the possible triggers of nostalgia (found here). Participants were asked to describe situations that lead to experiencing nostalgia, and scientists found that negative emotions, chiefly loneliness, were the most common answers. This makes sense, going along with Routledge’s initial statement- nostalgia is possibly brought about in an attempt to cope with any negative mental state someone may find himself or herself in. Routledge refers to these as “psychological threats.” But if this is the case, it doesn’t make sense that my negative mental states often come from the nostalgia itself. Also, this study is observational, and results may be confounded by third variables such as the age of the participant or possible mental disorders. I would need an actual experiment studying the levels of brain chemicals during episodes of nostalgia to be completely convinced that nostalgia is brought about by a negative mental state.

Upon doing some more digging, I thought it was a bit odd that many news articles studying nostalgia and its effects cite the same study by Routledge (and on some occasions, nothing else.) I find it hard to believe that there are so few modern studies conducted on this topic of psychology. There are several older studies that take a more negative view on the effects of nostalgia, but the only study used to inform the public about the new light scientists are seeing the nostalgia issue under is the one conducted at North Dakota State University. The findings of the study do look decent, and many researchers were involved, but there should be more scientists doing similar experiments in order to reduce the likelihood of chance.

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2 thoughts on “Why do humans get nostalgic?

  1. Celine Elizabeth Gosselin Post author

    This does support the theory that nostalgia exists to improve your mental state. However, for some people, remembering good memories act in a negative way, reminding them (us) of fun times that are long gone. I wonder what makes some people feel this way about remembering happy moments instead of the desired effect of boosting the mood. Do brain chemicals like serotonin have anything to do with it?

  2. Adam David Mccullough

    The thing that I have always been curious about is, why do I look back on events that I did not necessarily enjoy at the time, and remember them in such a positive manner. For instance, if I think back to high school, the only memories that come to mind are joking with friends and having pleasant conversations with teachers, but none of the memories of stress or sadness come back. I actually found an interesting article on this phenomenon that discusses why good memories are less likely to fade. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27193607

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