A song, a place, a smell… it doesn’t take much to be transported back in time. Just as with Proust and his madeleines, we all have specific memories that not only provoke nostalgia but trigger intense emotions.
And while nostalgia is often framed as a positive thing — a fond wistfulness — this isn’t always the case, as the University of Akron’s Jennifer R. Turner and Jennifer Tehan Stanley explore in a recent paper published in Emotion. They find that nostalgia is more common the older we get — and it can also set off both positive and negative feelings.
Participants were 100 adults ranging in age from 18 to 78. After sharing demographic data, participants downloaded an app to their phones on which they took daily questionnaires for two weeks. Every day after receiving a prompt, they completed a measure related to nostalgia, indicating whether or not they had experienced nostalgia during the day, what they were doing at the time, and who they were with. (They were given three criteria by which to measure nostalgia: an experience that is emotional and autobiographical, during which you relive moments or “takes you back”, and that is not actively sought.) Participants then indicated how positive or negative the experience of nostalgia made them feel; those who did not record nostalgia were asked how they felt in the moment they were taking the questionnaire.
As expected, age was a significant predictor of daily nostalgia — young adults reported nostalgia 60% less often than middle aged adults, while older adults reported nostalgia three times more than middle aged people. Gender was not a significant predictor of nostalgia.
Experiencing nostalgia was related to both positive and negative changes in mood: 72% of participants reported an increase in positive affect in response to nostalgia, while 51% had an increase in negative affect. Younger and middle aged people were more likely to experience positive emotions in response to nostalgia than older people, for whom nostalgia was more related to increases in negative mood.
It makes sense that older people are more nostalgic — they’ve had more life experience to be nostalgic about. As to why our emotional response to nostalgia seems to shift to more negative than positive over time, the team has two suggestions. The first pertains to the way we conceptualise ourselves as we get older, remembering important moments in our lives — not all of which are likely to be positive.
Secondly, though nostalgia was not associated with a significant increase in positive affect among older people, there was some gain. This suggests that the benefits of remembering times past may be more ambiguous in older life, embodying the poignant nature of nostalgia.
Other studies have suggested that purposefully looking back on your past can make you less likely to suffer depression, providing “sense, meaning and ways of thinking to free the individual from feelings of joylessness or despair”. For those finding the pangs of nostalgia more bitter than sweet, this conscious effort to remember may be a way of reframing a complex yet common emotion.