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Clay Routledge

Dr. Clay Routledge is a leading expert in existential psychology. His work examines how the human need for meaning in life influences and is influenced by different cognitive processes, self-regulation,[…]
In Partnership With
John Templeton Foundation

Nostalgia is making a comeback. Whether it’s movies, fashion, or music, people are turning the clock back a few decades. 

It makes sense. The world is going through a period of turmoil and uncertainty. When life feels chaotic, our minds naturally drift toward more comforting experiences from the past. 

Thanks to social media and streaming services, we can satisfy our nostalgic longings more easily than ever.

CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Currently, it seems like we're seeing nostalgia everywhere: whether it's movies, music, fashion. We're also experiencing a lot of uncertainty in our society. When the world seems chaotic, our minds naturally drift towards past experiences that comfort us, but there's other reasons that we're nostalgic. Thanks to social media and streaming services, we have nostalgia at our fingertips. A common criticism of nostalgia is it keeps people stuck in the past. Because if you're thinking about the past, then how are you thinking about challenges in the present, or potential challenges in the future? If you look at how nostalgia is actually experienced, it's not something that most people dwell on, or it's not something that holds people back. It's actually more of a source of inspiration.

'I can hardly wait!' Nostalgia actually has a pretty wild history. The term was coined in 1688 by a Swiss medical student who was working on his dissertation. And at that time, what he'd noticed was there were these soldiers that were coming down from the Swiss Alps to fight wars in the plains of Europe who were feeling very anxious and distressed. And so he coined the term 'nostalgia' to represent this pain associated with people's longing for their homeland- and he saw it very much as a disease. 

If you fast forward to the present day, you would discover that nostalgia is actually considered a psychological resource. It's actually very helpful for our health and well-being. And what we discovered through careful experimentation using tools of modern behavioral science, is that it's actually not the case that nostalgia makes people miserable. It's when people are miserable that they turn to nostalgia and nostalgia doesn't reinforce that misery, it actually comforts them. And then even more recently, we've discovered that it actually motivates and mobilizes us to improve our lives, and to pursue the goals that are meaningful to us. 

A lot of nostalgic memories are from when we're children, or when we're in our teenage years. That's when we're becoming ourselves. We're figuring out our own interests. We're developing our own friendships. And there seems to be something about that time of self-development in life that we are drawn to as we get older. In times of life where we're going through changes- whether it's we're moving, we're getting married- things that involve big changes in life tend to make us want to reconnect with the past so we can reassert who we are. We can feel like we're the same person. 

This is referred to as 'Self-continuity.' We're happy to change, we're happy to grow, but we wanna feel like at the core- the person who we are deep down, the authentic self- is relatively stable across time. And so, as we approach middle age, we like to remind ourselves, "Oh yeah, this was what I was into, this is who I was then," and it helps us take stock of what we wanna do in the future. Are there things we lost track of that we'd like to reconnect with? Nostalgia helps us do that. 

Turns out, nostalgia has a number of psychological benefits: For one, nostalgia tends to improve self-esteem. Nostalgic memories are very much about the self as the protagonist in a story, so other people are present in the story, but really these are our stories. And so nostalgia gives us a sense of confidence for who we are, like a clarity of our self-concept, and that tends to boost our self-esteem. In addition, nostalgia is highly social. 

Even though the self is at the center of the story, nearly all nostalgic memories involve close relationships, and so nostalgia also boosts our feelings of connection or belongingness. Nostalgia also increases a sense of meaning in life, and this is because most of our nostalgic memories are cherished memories. They're the life experiences that help us feel like we've lived a good life. So you look at the past and say, "Hey, I had good things going on then. I should be able to have good things going on in the future." So, nostalgia also increases optimism. When life is uncertain, or we're not really sure which direction to take, we need to find clues, right? We need help in making decisions. Nostalgia gives us wisdom. It gives us motivation to take on the challenges of the present, and to pursue goals in the future.