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On the Spot

From disease to remedy: How nostalgia offers a psychological boost

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Bridget Robinson-Riegler, Ph.D. Professor, Psychology DepartmentA special vacation with family members you miss. That unforgettable meal at your favorite restaurant with your favorite person. The album you used to listen to nonstop during the ups and downs of high school. You’re happy you have those pleasant memories, but you’re also sad they’re over. You are experiencing nostalgia.

Throwback TV shows, retro fashion, and reboots of toys, trinkets, and stories from decades ago have people wondering if American culture is at its peak in terms of nostalgia—and how long it can last. Bridget Robinson-Riegler is a professor of psychology at Augsburg University. Taking a moment between writing a cognitive psychology textbook, research, and teaching and learning with her students, she explores what psychology can tell us about nostalgia’s appeal.

Q: What is nostalgia? How does it relate to memory?

A: Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for one’s past. The emotion is deeply social and bittersweet but predominantly positive. Nostalgic memories are recollections of atypical life events (e.g.,vacations) that involve close relationships (e.g., family, friends) or events from childhood. We view these experiences with rose-colored glasses so negative aspects are often not remembered. We miss those experiences and yearn to relive them.

Q: Where did the idea of nostalgia originate?

A: The word “nostalgia” is a compound of two Greek words that essentially mean a sad mood originating from a desire to return to one’s native land. The word was coined in the 17th century by a medical student who was helping Swiss mercenaries working in France. He observed symptoms of sadness, loss of appetite, insomnia, cardiac palpitation—things we would diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder today. Much of the early interest in nostalgia focused on how to stop these thoughts because it was considered a disease and the resulting symptoms prevented individuals from performing at their military best.

Q: How does nostalgia affect people psychologically?

A: Nostalgic remembering is most likely to occur in times of loneliness, negative moods, or feelings of meaninglessness. It is basically a coping mechanism to deal with distress. Rather than being the problem (the disease, as it was conceptualized when the term was first coined), it is the way we cope (more like the remedy or cure). Even if we may feel bad and disconnected in our current life, we can “relive” a time when we felt good and were not lonely. Reconstructing memories and projecting ourselves into the future are interdependent cognitive processes that share a system in the brain. So, when we think about a time when we were socially connected and at our “personal best,” these feelings stretch out into our future, and we become hopeful and consequently feel better.

Q: How is nostalgia active in society today?

A: Given the state of the world—climate change, ups and downs in the economy, racist acts, problematic government leadership—it is not surprising that nostalgic thinking is common. This type of societal distress can lead to personal nostalgia and to collective nostalgia in which people long for a time when they viewed the world as a better place, even if it wasn’t. So there is a resurgence of old TV shows, vinyl records, throwback uniforms for athletic teams, retro clothes, and other products. We seek comfort with familiar products from childhood or from a time when the world was viewed as “better” or “easier.”

Q: How do you experience nostalgia?

A: I become nostalgic about the state fair. It is one big Minnesotan family reunion. I just love it! Everyone is happy and enjoying themselves. I begin to feel nostalgic about the summer and the fun I’ve had at the fair. This also likely stems from the fact that the fair signals the beginning of the school year.

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