“Everything is more beautiful
because we’re doomed.
You will never be lovelier than you are now.
We will never be here again.”
-Homer, The Illiad
In a little less than two weeks, I will be graduating from college. Personally, I am having a rather difficult time coping with the enormity of this event and all the uncertainty, unknowingness, and overall change accompanying it. In this time of transition, I’ve found myself doing a lot of reflecting and remembering, and it is the past that seems to be easing the pain of the present. By today’s definition, I would be experiencing a state of nostalgia.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) defines “nostalgia” as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Historically, however, nostalgia has been viewed in very different terms. For example, when Swiss doctor Johannes Hoffer first coined the term in 1688, nostalgia was seen as a neurological disease which was attributed to demonic causes. Symptoms of nostalgia were thought to include “bouts of weeping, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, anorexia, insomnia, and even smothering sensations” (McCann, 1941).
The 19th century saw a change in the conceptualization of nostalgia and it was no longer considered a neurological disorder, but came to be seen as a form of depression. This view of nostalgia as a psychological disorder continued into much of the 20th century where nostalgia was described as everything from an “immigrant psychosis” to a “mentally repressive disorder” to a “regressive manifestation closely related to the issue of loss, grief, and incomplete mourning” (Wildschut, Sedikides, Arndt, & Routledge, 2006).
It has only been recently that nostalgia has shaken its rather dark interpretation from the past and separated itself from its often equated status with ‘homesickness’. For example, in Davis’ (1979) sociological study of nostalgia, he found that the term was associated with words such as “warm”, “old times,” “childhood,” and “yearning.” As researchers have taken a greater interest in nostalgia, more light has been shed on its psychological functions.
One aspect of nostalgia in which psychologists have taken a particular interest has been nostalgia’s effect on mood. Nostalgia has been found to be experienced as “fond remembrance” and as Dr. Filippo Cordaro explains, the recalling of positive memories “simply puts us in a more positive mood.”
Nostalgia has also been shown to increase one’s self-concept. In their study of nostalgia, Vess, Arndt, Routledge, Sedikides and Wildschut (2010) found that nostalgic narratives were not only relevant to the self, referencing a usually personally experienced past, but reflecting on these experiences tended to increase self-reported levels of self-esteem as well as self positive associations, while lowering levels of self-serving attributions.
Lastly, nostalgia has been found to strengthen feelings of social connectedness, and nostalgic narratives often involve interactions between the self and important others, such as family members, friends, and romantic partners (Wildschut et al. 2006). In line with Wildschut et al.’s findings, Juhl et al. (2010) found that “thinking about a nostalgic event (compared to an ordinary event) resulted in greater feelings of being ‘loved’ and ‘protected,’ lower feelings of attachment anxiety and avoidance, and greater feelings of interpersonal competence and support.”
Juhl et al. (2010) argue that because nostalgia has the potential to increase positive affect, bolster self-concept, and strengthen social connectedness, it also serves an existential function. The researchers found that nostalgia worked not only to buffer the threat of death anxiety, but also helped to boost perceptions of one’s life as meaningful. Overall, Juhl et al. found nostalgia to be a generally positive emotional reflection that fulfills a wide range of psychological functions, and argue it should be seen as a psychological strength rather than a liability or pathology. As Loyola psychologist Dr. Fred Bryant explains, nostalgia can also give one a “sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose–instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life” (Krakovsky, 2006).
While some see nostalgia as associated with positive affect and as beneficial for one’s well-being, other theorists have argued nostalgia belongs to the negative subset of well-being emotions. Ortony, Clore, and Collins (1988), for example, characterize nostalgia as a “distress and loss emotion,” and argue that nostalgia evokes feelings of sadness and mourning about the past. Some theorists who subscribe to this view go so far as to say that nostalgia is representative of “the wounding realization that some desirable aspect of one’s past is irredeemably lost” (Hepper, 2012).
Keeping in line with the potentially negative aspects of nostalgia, Verplanken (2012) looked at habitual worrying and nostalgia, and found that habitual worriers showed stronger symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Verplanken argues that this response can be understood from a control theoretical perspective, which suggest that “nostalgic memories may function as a reference value that contrasts with the individual’s chronic worried state.” This felt discrepancy might also encourage further rumination (Verplanken, 2012).
Similarly, Wildschut, Sedikides, Routledge, Arndt, and Cordaro (2006) examined nostalgia in relation to personality to see if there was a personality type more likely to engage in nostalgia. The researchers found there to be a link between the Big Five personality trait neuroticism, often associated with instability, anxiety, moodiness, irritability, and sadness, and nostalgia proneness. The findings also showed neuroticism to be associated with the need to belong, which was found to be one specific trigger of nostalgia. This is consistent with the extant literature which suggest one function of nostalgia is to increase feelings of social connectedness (Wildschut et al. 2006). Wildschut, Sedikides, Routledge, Arndt, and Cordaro also suggest other trait-like variables such as attachment style, self-esteem, and chronic affect may influence how nostalgia is implemented.
While both the positive and negative sides of nostalgia have been highlighted, many theorists emphasize that both kinds of affect often combine to create the “affectively mixed,” or bittersweet, nature of nostalgia. Johnson-Laird and Oatley (1989), for example, conceptualized nostalgia as a “positive emotion with tones of loss.” While they consider nostalgia to be a happiness-related emotion, nostalgia is simultaneously thought to invoke sadness because there remain aspects of the past that, while still desirable, are now out of reach.
In a 2006 study which conducted a narrative analysis of participants’ self-reported nostalgic events, the researchers found that even though most narratives contained a mix of negative and positive elements, these elements tended to be juxtaposed in such a way that they formed a “redemption sequence,” which is a narrative pattern that moves from a negative to a positive or life scene. The researchers speculate that this may be why, even though there were stories of disappointment and loss, that “the overall affective signature of the nostalgic narratives was predominantly–albeit not purely–positive.”
According to the literature, I may very well be in a developmentally prime period for nostalgia. Research has shown that levels of nostalgia tend to be high among young adults, decline in middle age, and rise again during old age, potentially highlighting another function of nostalgia: its ability to help cope with transitions (Tierney, 2013). As I embark on a major life transition, I am feeling both the positives and the negatives of nostalgia. As I look back at my collegiate career, I feel a sense of happiness and joy thinking about how I found a major and minor I could academically submerse myself into and which allowed me to develop my passions. I feel grateful for the opportunities I have been presented during my time at UCSC that have helped unearth parts of myself I had not known to exist.
I am also incredibly sad to leave the beautiful forest of a school I have called home for the last four years. I will miss all of the wonderful people I have met along the way, all of who have in some way or another contributed to my success. I will miss watching the setting sun from my favorite spot on campus, the walks through the redwoods to class, and “my spot” in the library. I will also mourn the loss of my identity as a student, an identity I have now carried with me for sixteen years. It is a bittersweet time to say the least, and as I attempt to navigate the “real world,” it brings me comfort to know I will always have fond memories of UCSC. I was doomed from the start of my four-year journey, but its been a beautiful ride nonetheless.