How Nostalgia Enhances Life’s Meaning

In a piece called “The power of the past: Nostalgia as a meaning-making resource,” Clay Routledge and his co-workers describe how, in history, the term nostalgia was looked upon with strong amounts of criticism. At one point in time, Nostalgia was even viewed as a cerebral disease, while in another era, it was thought to be a kind of psychiatric condition.

But Routledge and his team are of the mind that nostalgia can actually help maintain and enhance life’s meaning.

Their research consisted of three experiments.

Experiment One

Here, one group of people were asked to write about a nostalgic event while others had to write about an event they hoped would manifest in the future. After that, everyone filled out a questionnaire that calculated the degree to which they saw life as meaningful. Those who wrote about a nostalgic event had a higher score on sensed meaning than those who wrote about an event they hoped would manifest in the future.

Experiment Two

Once again, some participants were given the task to write about a nostalgic event. However, this time, the others had to write about a positive experience that took place during the week preceding the study. Then, everyone was asked to fill out a questionnaire that measured the degree to which they looked for meaning, having to mark claims such as “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” or “I am looking for something that makes my life feel meaningful.”

Since people who lack a sense of meaning are more prone to search for it, lower degrees of searching for meaning indicate higher degrees of sensed meaning. And those who wrote about a nostalgic event in fact scored lower on searching for meaning than the people who wrote about a positive experience. This again confirms that nostalgia enhances a person’s sense of meaning more than the alternative.

Experiment Three

In the final experiment, all participants were shown a picture of Rene Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’ which has been shown to undermine, to a small extent and temporarily, people’s sense of meaning.

Some participants had to write about a nostalgic event while others were asked to write about a positive experience in the preceding week, and everyone completed the sensed meaning questionnaire. Once again, those in the “nostalgia group” had higher scores on sensed meaning than the participants in the “positive experience group”. To put it simply, nostalgia eased the negative impact on sensed meaning more than did the alternative.

Rene Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’

Routledge and his team note that it is possible that nostalgia may not be helpful for all of us. For example, people who are highly negative toward the past might not be helped by it at all. However, such experiments suggest that for many of us, nostalgia may be a good way for enhancing a sense of meaning in life.

Eventually, newer studies may look into whether such findings can lead to creating practical interventions, such as daily nostalgia exercises, for those who see their lives as lacking meaning.

Why Nostalgia May Bring About Hope

It should come to no one’s surprise that nostalgia helps us in finding meaning. When life seems hopeless and meaningless, nostalgia can remind us that many things have been meaningful in the past, which gives us hope that meaning may lie ahead of us once again. Memories of nostalgia concentrate on what is familiar at times when we may feel lost and alienated, and on what is authentic when we feel a sense of inauthenticity.

Do you believe that nostalgia plays a positive role in your life? Let us know your thoughts on the topic by joining the conversation in the comments and please share this article if you’ve enjoyed the read.

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