What Triggers Nostalgia?
A feeling of nostalgia can catapult you back to a different time and place in an instant—and the triggers are different for everyone and can be different for every memory. Sometimes it’s certain smells, a part of a song, a type of food or even just a word—but even more interesting is what social psychologist, Clay Routeldge, and his team found when studying triggers. Routeldge discovered that nostalgia was more often brought on by negative feelings or loneliness than more obvious triggers like sounds or sights.
In his study, he asked participants to talk about times they had felt nostalgic and the circumstances surrounding their feelings—most people noted loneliness caused them to feel nostalgic. They also found that when participants read three different news stories—one positive, one negative and one neutral—the negative story brought on nostalgic thoughts. The researchers’ explanation for this behavior is that nostalgia may be a coping mechanism for “negative mental states or psychological threats.”
This emotion, which is experienced across cultures, was long considered to be a disorder, first coined by a Swiss physician of the 17th century. This doctor, Johannes Hofer, used this term to diagnose soldiers who were experiencing feelings of longing for home. The word itself comes from Greek: nostos meaning “to return home” and algos meaning “pain” or “ache.” Nostalgia continued on with a negative connotation and was thought of as a disease or form of psychosis through the 19th and 20th century, until recent research has begun to show that the outcome and result of reminiscing is vastly positive.
Positive Effects of Nostalgia
Researchers studying this longing feeling for the past decade have found that nostalgia is actually the opposite of a disease or malady—it’s good for you. For one, they found that nostalgia almost always involves sentimental or cherished memories, often spent with loved ones. This counteracts feelings of anxiety and loneliness. It also gives people a sense of belonging and serves as a reminder that people in your life love and support you. And it could even bring about more intimate relationships—researchers found that couples felt closer when sharing nostalgic memories.
Fascinatingly, multiple researchers have found an incredible brain-body connection—when people are feeling nostalgic, they are physically warmer. Originally discovered by a team at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, scientists from Sun Yat-Sen University in China studied this connection further and found that nostalgic feelings were also more likely to occur on cold days or in rooms cooler than 68 degrees Fahrenheit. While it needs more research, the theory is that this could be an adaptation used by our ancestors.
Take some time over the holidays this year and let yourself bask in some pleasant and happy memories of times past, and enjoy the feeling nostalgia brings!