The Science of Nostalgia

CPPA Students
5 min readFeb 21, 2023
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

By: Alexander Korski

This blog has been reviewed by Alvina Lai and Gingin Chien; edited, formatted and published by Nicholas Murray.


I had a wonderful Christmas break this year. I study away from home, so it’s always nice to be able to catch up with family and friends over the holidays. A few outings, such as a visit to a local theatre or a student-favourite diner near my old high school, always come laced with a strong sense of nostalgia. I’m not usually one to chase feelings from the past, but sometimes you can’t help but stop and reminisce about the good old days. This got me thinking about what it exactly means to be nostalgic, and whether this feeling has a place on the roster of positive psychology concepts. As it turns out, nostalgia is not exactly a broadly studied phenomenon. However, there are a number of good reasons to believe that it can indeed serve as a useful tool for a healthy mind, rather than merely the forlorn wistfulness that it is sometimes pinned as.

Nostalgia is often associated with the sentimental recollection of good times past. Bittersweet, perhaps, but an ultimately pleasant sensation. This is not a definitive account, however, and for a long time nostalgia was considered to be profoundly negative, to the point that it was classified as a mental illness.¹ I am often amused by the now utterly obsolete mental disorders that persisted in the west throughout the modern age, from moral insanity to Newyorkitis,² but I was nevertheless surprised that nostalgia made the cut. In the 17th-19th centuries, it was noted for its negative outcomes in soldiers who longed to return to their homeland. This desperate desire was thought to be responsible for symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia, which sometimes even led to death.³ Similar circumstances can be found in refugees suffering from social displacement, such that poor psychological health is often observed with a strong yearning for home.¹

While the crippling homesickness that comes with traumatic displacement is certainly unhealthy, this is not the usual, benign nostalgia that most people experience in their everyday lives, such as my fond regard for Elgin Street Diner. What, then, constitutes a more average feeling of nostalgia? An analysis of the magazine Nostalgia, which invites its readers to submit their own nostalgic stories, revealed that these recollections most often revolve around oneself and one’s experiences with close others and important events. Furthermore, they tend to be more positive than negative. Intriguingly, this study also observed that negative affect, especially loneliness, frequently serves as a trigger for nostalgia, and that nostalgia improves mood because it “bolsters social bonds, increases positive self-regard, and generates positive affect”.⁴ Thus, in spite of their bittersweet tinge, it is possible that nostalgic experiences serve as positive mental resources through their ability to reignite good feelings about yourself and those you care about. This is consistent with the fact that another common theme in nostalgic stories is being at a low point and subsequently experiencing a triumph.⁴ When you are feeling lonely, nostalgia reminds you of the meaningful bonds that you have formed. When you are feeling down, nostalgia reminds you that you have risen from undesirable situations before.

This updated perspective of nostalgia as a positive resource may also explain the seemingly contrary traditional view. The fact that we now observe nostalgia being used as a mechanism to improve mood suggests that the soldiers studied in centuries past were doing just that. Trying to find a way to cope with the immense stress imposed by war, they may have turned to nostalgia in an attempt to soothe their existing symptoms, rather than the symptoms stemming from the nostalgia itself. This would be consistent with a number of other studies that have since explored the kinds of negative affect that prompt nostalgia. For example, people are more likely to become nostalgic when they feel a sense of meaninglessness.⁵

When you are feeling lonely, nostalgia reminds you of the meaningful bonds that you have formed. When you are feeling down, nostalgia reminds you that you have risen from undesirable situations before.

Finally, if you still aren’t persuaded as to the value of nostalgia, consider that it has also been observed to increase sensations of physical warmth. Zhou et al. (2012) found that, much like negative affect, the feeling of being physically cold serves as a trigger for nostalgia, with colder rooms resulting in people becoming more nostalgic than warmer rooms. Furthermore, this nostalgia also resulted in increased feelings of warmth. Music-related nostalgia in particular was implemented for this study, and music with a greater degree of nostalgic significance for participants resulted in them feeling significantly warmer.⁶ Thus, nostalgia appears capable of supplementing our wellbeing across a surprisingly large range of factors, both psychological and physiological.

If this blog has given you the impression that nostalgia only engages its function when you are lacking in some way, do not be concerned. Nostalgic feelings are common — estimated at 1–3 times a week per person.⁶ It is completely natural to take a moment to reflect on your fondness for past times, and even feel a little sad about it. Just know that nostalgia is one of your brain’s many ways of looking out for you. Everyone doubts themselves and their relationships once in a while, so having a collection of prime memories about your previous self serves as excellent evidence that you are worth it.

Thank you for reading my blog with the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. If you haven’t already, please consider getting your CPPA membership to join our wonderful community and check out our Student Zone. Plus, if you liked this blog or if it has helped you in any way, please take a moment to like, share, or comment.


  1. Weiss, K. J., & Dube, A. R. (2021). What ever happened to Nostalgia (the diagnosis)? Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 209(9), 622–627.
  2. Friss, E. (2016, May 25). Bicycles: The cure to “newyorkitis”. The Gotham Center for New York City History. Retrieved January 11, 2023, from
  3. Battesti, M. (2016). Nostalgia in the Army (17th-19th centuries). War Neurology, 132–142.
  4. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 975–993.
  5. Routledge, C., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., & Juhl, J. (2013). Nostalgia as a resource for psychological health and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 808–818.
  6. Zhou, X., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Chen, X., & Vingerhoets, A. J. (2012). Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Emotion, 12(4), 678–684.



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