This entry provides a historical overview of conceptualizations of nostalgia. It contrasts past treatises, which viewed nostalgia as a neurological disease and a psychiatric disorder, with a contemporary approach, which views nostalgia as a predominantly positive, self-relevant, and social emotion. The entry reviews empirical evidence indicating that nostalgia is integral to interpersonal relationships. This evidence shows that nostalgic memories frequently feature the self in a social context, that nostalgia is triggered by loneliness, and that nostalgia increases secure attachment, interpersonal competence, and perceived social support.
The word nostalgia was coined in the 17th century by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, but references to its meaning can be traced back as far as Homer's Odyssey. It is a compound of the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain). The literal meaning of nostalgia is the suffering caused by a desire to return to one's place of origin. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as most of the 19th century, nostalgia was thought to be a neurological disease with such varied symptoms as persistent thinking of home, despondency, bouts of weeping, irregular heartbeat, and smothering sensations.
By the end of the 19th century, nostalgia came to be regarded as a psychiatric or psychosomatic disorder. Symptoms included anxiety, sadness, loss of appetite, insomnia, and fever. As the psycho-dynamic perspective gained strength in the mid-20th century, nostalgia came to be viewed as a regressive disorder reflecting the subconscious desire to return to an early stage of life. Under this influence, nostalgia was downgraded to a variant of depression rooted in incomplete mourning and an inability to cope with the challenges of adulthood, including grief and loss. In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that nostalgia was often equated with homesickness.
Nostalgia did not acquire a unique conceptual status until the latter part of the 20th century. Sociologist Fred Davis laid the groundwork for this new look on nostalgia by showing, for instance, that participants associated words such as warm, old times, childhood, and yearning more frequently with nostalgia than with homesickness, suggesting that participants could discriminate between these two concepts. Recently, nostalgia has become the topic of social-psychological inquiry focusing on three issues: the content of nostalgic experiences, the triggers of nostalgia, and the psychological functions of nostalgia. Preliminary answers to these questions highlight the link between nostalgia and interpersonal relationships.
Studies on the content of nostalgia have analyzed autobiographical narratives of nostalgic experiences. In one study, researchers retrieved and content-analyzed narratives published in the periodical Nostalgia. Another study followed a vivid-recall protocol in which undergraduate students wrote a detailed narrative account about a nostalgic experience, which was content-analyzed. In both studies, the narratives revealed that individuals most frequently felt nostalgic about close others (family members, old friends). Further highlighting the social aspect of nostalgia was the finding that nostalgic narratives almost exclusively featured the self in interpersonal context. Although many narratives contained descriptions of disappointments and losses (separation, death of loved ones), positive and negative aspects were often juxtaposed to create a redemption sequence— a narrative pattern that progresses from a negative to a positive life scene.
Research on the triggers of nostalgia has been guided by the idea that nostalgia often occurs in response to negative psychological states and may help the individual to restore psychological equanimity. Most empirical attention has been focused on the discrete negative affective state of loneliness. In experimental research, loneliness was manipulated by giving British (in one study) and Chinese (in another study) undergraduates false feedback regarding their score on a test that ostensibly assessed loneliness. For some participants, the feedback indicated that they were high in loneliness, for others that they were low in loneliness. Participants then completed a measure of nostalgia, rating the extent to which they missed various aspects of their past (e.g., “someone I loved,” “feelings I had”). British and Chinese participants in the high-loneliness condition were more nostalgic than were those in the low-loneliness condition. Two correlational studies with Chinese participants further showed that loneliness was positively correlated with feelings of nostalgia and that this loneliness-nostalgia association was stronger among high than among low-resilience individuals. These findings raise the interesting possibility that individuals, particularly those high in resilience, recruit nostalgia to counteract the adverse effects of loneliness.
How might nostalgia help individuals cope with negative subjective states such as loneliness? Research on the psychological functions of nostalgia has identified several pathways. In a typical experiment, some participants are instructed to write about a nostalgic experience and other participants are instructed to write about an ordinary experience from their past. Participants who write about a nostalgic experience (compared with an ordinary experience) show significant increases in positive affect and in positive self-esteem. Furthermore, these experiments provide evidence that nostalgia increases social connectedness. Nostalgic participants scored higher than did control participants on state measures of secure attachment, perceived social support, and interpersonal competence. Nostalgia, then, can make individuals feel loved and capable of loving others.
Affiliation, Loneliness, Memories and Relationships, Resilience, Social Support, Nature of