What Nostalgia Is and What It Does
Hepper, Ritchie, Sedikides, and Wildschut (2012, Emotion) describe nostalgia as a complex emotion that involves past-oriented cognition and a mixed affective signature. The emotion is often triggered by encountering a familiar smell, sound, or keepsake, by engaging in conversations, or by feeling lonely. When waxing nostalgic, one remembers, thinks about, reminisces about, or dwells on a memory from one’s past—typically a fond, personally meaningful memory such as one’s childhood or a close relationship. One often views the memory through rose-tinted glasses, misses that time or person, longs for it, and may even wish to return to the past. As a result, one typically feels emotional, most often happy but with a sense of loss and longing; other less common feelings include comfort, calm, regret, sadness, pain, or an overall sense of bittersweetness.
Nostalgia confers psychological benefits. When engaging in nostalgic reflection, people report a stronger sense of belongingness, affiliation, or sociality; they convey higher continuity between their past and their present; they describe their lives as more meaningful; and they often indicate higher levels of self-esteem and positive mood. Although nostalgic engagement (especially when it is carried out habitually and excessively) may not be beneficial to all, it is in general a resource on which people can capitalize to harness strength—a resource that allows them to cope more effectively with the vicissitudes of life.