It’s hard to resist the pull of the ‘good old days,’ nostalgia researcher says—here’s why

Renée Onque
CNBC
4 Min Read
Even when we aren’t looking for it, nostalgia finds us.
Even when we aren’t looking for it, nostalgia finds us. Credit: Pexels/Pixabay (user Pexels)

Hearing a sound in passing or getting a whiff of a smell can transport you to a familiar time and place in your life, and more likely than not you’ll get excited and want to think about the memory some more — that’s nostalgia.

While making breakfast in my kitchen this week, I heard the sound of someone cleaning a window which instantly reminded me of a scene from the movie, Coraline.

Immediately, I felt that I wanted to watch the movie despite having seen it countless times, including in theatres this past August, 14 years after its initial release.

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Even when we aren’t looking for it, nostalgia finds us. But we’re inclined to seek it out too.

Nostalgia is “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,” according to Merriam-Webster.

It’s a “mixed emotional experience, so when we’re nostalgic, we may experience a sense of loss and longing. But we also experience positive emotions such as happiness [and] gratitude,” according to Andrew Abeyta, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Rutgers University in Camden.

Adults playing Game Boys at bars, Gen Zers with flip phones and music artists sampling classic tunes in their new hit songs are all proof that nostalgia is something we gravitate towards, and are willing to pay for.

But what’s so attractive about the feeling? We talked to Abeyta, who studies nostalgia, to get to the bottom of why the emotion is so desirable and if it’s actually good for us.

When Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia in 1688, it had a negative connotation, Abeyta notes.

“It was thought of as a negative thing, like a mental illness almost, that was brought on by being away from home,” he says.

Yet, researchers like Abeyta are discovering that “it’s not that nostalgia itself was producing negative feelings or negative emotions, but that people were driven to nostalgia because they were experiencing negative emotions.”

Engaging in nostalgia when you’re stressed or lonely can provide positive psychological benefits and be restorative. Thinking back on good memories like the smell of your grandmother’s cookies or your mother’s perfume can bring about memories of a simpler time and boost your happiness, especially if you’re struggling emotionally.

“That sort of lets them know that there are people out there that love me and support me and have my back,” Abeyta says. “And that makes me feel soothed, and now able to go face the challenges [and] harsh realities of my life.”

“One of the most impactful benefits of nostalgia that I found in my research is nostalgia promotes a sense of what we call social connectedness,” Abeyta says.

photos, hands, hold
Engaging in nostalgia when you’re stressed or lonely can provide positive psychological benefits and be restorative. Credit: jarmoluk/Pixabay (user jarmoluk)

Often, the memories that make you feel the most nostalgic can be linked to times in your life when you were surrounded by family and friends. Those memories are usually tied to themes of love and belonging, he adds, which you may need during times of hardship.

Nostalgia can even help to break the ice if you run into an old friend and aren’t sure how to start the conversation.

“Eventually, you sort of grease the wheels by talking about the good old days, talking about time spent together, ‘Remember this person? Remember that time?’ and that kind of gets the bonding kicked off.”

Maybe a certain show or song reminds you of a bad experience from your past. For some, thinking about the memory can bring up negative emotions but end on a positive note. “We call this a redemptive narrative sequence,” Abeyta says.

″[Someone] might say, ‘I had this really terrible relationship, and this person was abusive, and really awful to me. But that experience helped me grow as a person and helped me to become stronger. So even though it was bad, I’m thankful I experienced it,’” he says.

While most people lean towards the redemptive narrative sequence, not everyone will think back on negative experiences and pull something positive from it.

The opposite side of the spectrum is what researchers call a contaminative narrative sequence.

“This is where it starts negative and ends negative, right? There’s no redemption,” Abeyta says. “These people don’t engage in nostalgia very often. They don’t really see it as a source of strength, and so they don’t engage in it often.”

Just like comfort food, nostalgia is good in moderation.

“Nostalgia is not always a bad thing. [Comfort food] is not always a bad thing. Oftentimes, we see comfort food as unhealthy and fattening. But comfort food is important because it helps us, sometimes, push forward,” Abeyta says.

“Nostalgia does that too. [It] helps restore positive feelings and gives us this encouragement to go out there and live productive lives.”

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