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Is nostalgia good for us?

Author: The Simple Bit

Category: Science

Friends is the number one sitcom, the Spice Girls are touring and Queen just headlined a bushfire concert. What is it with nostalgia? And is it good for us?

The simple bits:

  • Nostalgia was once thought of as disease you could cure with leeches
  • The feeling tends to be most powerful during times of personal and social transition
  • Psychological research has shown nostalgia is often about a longing for universal connectedness
  • Nostalgia can counteract boredom, anxiety and loneliness but you need the right mindset

From the endless reboots, remakes and reformations to that one conversation about your favourite milk bar lolly you’ve had a dozen times before. What is it about nostalgia? And is it good for us?


In 2020 – perhaps the most futuristic-sounding year yet – Friends is still one of the most popular shows on the planet. John Farnham just finished another tour even though he supposedly hung up the mic in 2002. And they’ve even put those itchy old-school football jumpers back on sale. What’s going on?


Where did nostalgia come from?

Scholar Svetlana Boym says nostalgia “is an incurable modern condition… a longing for home that no longer exists and never existed”. She’s working from the word’s Greek roots: nóstos (“return home”) and álgos (“longing”).    

But as Boym points out, the meaning isn’t actually Greek, it was just referring to a longing for Greece. It was a named Johannes Hoffer who first officially defined nostalgia. He called it a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” back in 1688.

Back then they thought sufferers could treat nostalgia with opium, leeches or hike through the Swiss Alps. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, nostalgia was classified as everything from an “immigrant psychosis”, a form of “melancholia” to a “mentally repressive compulsive disorder”.

These days researchers think the truth is more complicated (but thankfully more positive).


Why is nostalgia seemingly everywhere?

Nostalgia is about longing. It tends to be most powerful during times of transition. This could be during the transition from high school to uni, when people sometimes talk a lot about their favourite kids’ TV shows. But it can also be during big societal transitions. That’s why you tend to get an increase of nostalgic art and politics during revolutions and times of great uncertainty.

Psychological research has shown nostalgia is often about the longing for connectedness. found that the defining features of nostalgia (fond reminiscences about friends, holidays, songs etc.) were similar across England, South America and Africa. These stories usually start with a challenge or danger that’s eventually overcome with the help from friends.

Step into the nostalgia machine. 

How can we make nostalgia work for us?

According to a 2015 study by Andrew Abeyta, Clay Routledge and Jacob Juhl, nostalgia is important to how we view ourselves. As the study states, “it appears that nostalgic reflection highlights the meaningful aspects of one’s life.” Nostalgia helps us define ourselves.

Also according to the study, nostalgia actually makes us want to connect to friends. One observed result was that, “participants who reflected on a nostalgic memory reported stronger intentions to pursue goals of connecting with their friends than did participants who reflected on a positive or ordinary memory.”

So the contention is that nostalgia, rather than making us live in the past, actually makes us want to reconnect in the present.

Which means ultimately there’s nothing wrong with sitting down to a Friends re-run, because it’s likely to get you to your local Central Perk for a coffee with your own Chandlers and Phoebes every now and again.