Feeling nostalgia is good for our present and future well-being


Nostalgia is a complex emotion that is innately human and felt frequently by people of all ages and across cultures. On average, humans feel nostalgic a few times a week.

The last days of December can conjure an extra dose of nostalgia for many of us, as we look back on what the year brought and didn’t bring. Reminiscing about shared memories with friends, listening to your favorite music or looking through old photos are great ways to stroll down memory lane.

Not only is this type of reflection common, but it can also be good for us. Psychologists are finding that nostalgia is not only universal, but also associated with better mental well-being. It can serve as an important psychological asset in our present – and future.

“You dip in nostalgia, you dip into the past,” said Tim Wildschut, professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, “to motivate yourself, to pursue important goals, to imbue life with meaning, to feel connected. And then you go on and life takes over, you know, until the next time.”

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – and that’s a good thing.

Historically, ever since Johannes Hofer coined the term in his 1688 medical dissertation, nostalgia was maligned as a psychiatric disorder suffered by someone who preferred being lost in one’s past at the expense of the present.

“It’s a longing for the past that is no longer there,” said Verbon Cheung, a social psychologist at the University of Winchester. It is “bittersweet but more sweet than bitter.”

Humans in the past also felt that longing. Homer’s epic, “Odyssey,” embodies the word “nostalgia,” which derives from the Greek words for “homecoming” (nostos) and “pain” (algos).

Nostalgia may even precede our history or species, according to archaeological records from prehistorical civilizations. A 2022 study reported that 300,000 to 500,000 years ago, the inhabitants of what is now Israel kept and refashioned old flint tools even though it would have been easier to make them new from scratch, leading researchers to suggest that they were kept as “memory objects” of their predecessors imbued with emotional significance.

Over the past few decades, research has uncovered three main functions of nostalgia: increasing social connectedness, self-continuity and meaning.

Researchers typically induce nostalgia by asking participants to think and write about nostalgic memories or listen to nostalgic music. In the control group, participants are instead asked to think about more mundane memories or listen to music they have no nostalgia for.

Studies show that nostalgia tends to make people feel more socially connected.

By thinking fondly of old times with loved ones, “it’s a way of bringing them closer, even though they may be physically distant or perhaps they are no longer here with us for a moment,” Wildschut said. With nostalgia, “you can bring them into the present. And that makes you feel connected, makes you feel loved.”

Reminiscing reinforces our sense of self-continuity, strengthening the narrative we tell about our lives, which is important for our mental well-being. This may be because of what our nostalgic memories tend to be about: ourselves at the center of a story with other people we love, Cheung said.

As a result, nostalgia helps us find more meaning in life. One 2019 study, on which Wildschut was a co-author, found that nostalgia makes life more meaningful from its effects on social connectedness and self-continuity.

Interestingly, simply remembering the past is not enough: Compared with brooding, reflection and rumination, nostalgia is associated with better mental well-being. The potent psychological benefits of nostalgia arise from its ability to connect us with both our loved ones and ourselves.

“In a way, it’s like nostalgia is an asset that we have in ourselves,” Cheung said. “We have deposited positive experiences from the past that make us feel good about ourselves.”

It may be why during times of transition or challenge, people are more likely to experience nostalgia, which may help regulate our emotions. For instance, a 2022 study reported that writing about a nostalgic event for two minutes a week provided an effective psychological buffer during the pandemic lockdown.

In short, nostalgia can help us cope in uncertain times.

Thoughts of happier times not only help us feel good in the moment, but also is a fount of inspiration and motivation for the future.

Nostalgia activates the same “memory highway” that takes us backward in time as the one that “could project into the future,” Cheung said.

Brain-imaging studies indicate that nostalgia activates brain regions involved in self-reflection, autobiographical memory, emotion regulation and reward. In particular, there is increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region important for both remembering the past and imagining the future.

By reminding us of our past successes or abilities to form connections with others, nostalgia may drive us to pursue important goals and friendships. For example, a 2021 paper, on which Wildschut was a co-author, found that more nostalgic participants were more likely to seek help when they needed it.

Knowing the benefits of nostalgia, we can anticipate it and build a “bigger positive memory bank” by consciously savoring those moments as they happen, Cheung said.

A 2019 study conducted by Cheung and Wildschut reported that university students who savored their final year experiences were more likely to feel nostalgic four months to nine months later. This nostalgia was in turn associated with greater optimism.

Being present in the present thus sets us up for future nostalgia and well-being.

The next time you are spending quality time with those near and dear to you, “take another look” at them, Cheung said. “Give them another hug.”


Richard Sima. PHOTO: Linkedin @Richardsima

Richard Sima is a neuroscientist turned science journalist who writes the Brain Matters column for The Washington Post’s Well+Being desk.



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