Picture That: Nostalgia Provides Psychological Benefits, Says New Rutgers–Camden Study

By Tom McLaughlin

Maybe it’s a certain song or a photograph. Perhaps it’s an anniversary or a certain smell. Something triggers the mind and, before you know it, you are lost on a nostalgic journey.

Woman looking at sunset

Just taking a few minutes a day to reflect on past experiences and how they have helped shape who we are today can have extraordinary health benefits, says Abeyta.

But little did you know that nostalgia, a sentimental or wistful longing for the past, is much more than just reminiscing about the good ol’ times or the glory days, says Rutgers University–Camden researcher Andrew Abeyta.

According to the preliminary findings of his research, says the assistant professor of psychology, nostalgia can serve an invaluable psychological purpose, providing people who suffer from loneliness and a lack of social belonging with the tools needed to restore their social confidence and the motivation to connect with others.

“When people engage in nostalgic reverie, we are usually thinking about our relationships – the people with whom we share our most cherished memories,” says the Cherry Hill resident. “We are reflecting on our special accomplishments or personal successes, but we remember being surrounded by our loved ones, and we feel loved.”

Nostalgia can thus enable people to satisfy their basic social needs, he says, without actually having to connect with others. That can be even more important in this day and age, he notes, when so many human connections are mediated through digital technology.

“Nostalgia is a fascinating way that people can feel more socially connected and satisfy their needs for encouragement and support,” says Abeyta, who first studied the effects of nostalgia as a graduate student at North Dakota State University.

Andrew Abeyta

Abeyta says that nostalgia enables people to satisfy their basic social needs, without actually having to connect with others.

Meeting these social needs, he adds, can be especially critical for chronically lonely people, who not only have less opportunities to interact with others, but become increasingly pessimistic about their abilities to do so.

“Instead of being motivated to grow relationships or achieve intimacy in relationships, they become motivated to avoid relationships in order to prevent more social missteps,” he says.

So given what we know about nostalgia, asked the Rutgers–Camden researcher, can it be used constructively to help motivate individuals to share new experiences with others?

“Is it just a small taste, a whetting of the appetite, that can push us to go out and create those experiences in our environment?” he asks. “We’re finding that to be the case.”

In fall 2017, Abeyta conducted a study in which participants were asked to consider 20 different aspects of their past, such as family and childhood toys, and report how nostalgic they felt about each. In addition, participants completed a questionnaire gauging perceptions of loneliness, as well as various measures related to their attitudes about pursuing social goals and relationships.

The study found that the more nostalgic people feel, the more positive they feel about connecting with others and the stronger their desire or motivation to do so.

“It makes sense, given the fact that these cherished events that we remember are often the highlights of our social successes,” says Abeyta. “At that moment of nostalgia, people report feeling more comfortable, more secure, and less afraid.”

Nostalgia thus appears to be a natural regulator of loneliness, he continues. When people are feeling lonely, they naturally retreat to this nostalgic mindset and reflect on these special experiences, which helps them cope with feelings of not belonging.

“Lonely people turn to nostalgia and nostalgia helps to reduce the negative and pessimistic attitudes lonely people have about pursing social relationships,” he says. “In the study, I found that as nostalgia gets stronger, that relationship between loneliness and negative social attitudes reduces. At very high levels of nostalgia, that relationship becomes very small.”

On a day-to-day basis, adds the Rutgers–Camden researcher, just taking a few minutes to reflect on our past experiences and how they have helped shape who we are today can have extraordinary health benefits.

“Doing something as simple as that,” he says, “can give you a little boost, a sense of readiness to take on the world.”

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