Make America great again. Clearly the message resonated. In 2016, prior to the presidential election, the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group, published its annual American Values Survey. It revealed 51 percent of the population felt the American way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s. Further, 7 in 10 likely Donald Trump voters said American society has gotten worse since that romanticized decade.
Of course America today has its problems, but many indices of standards of living show the general population is better off now than it was 60 years ago. We live on average 10 years longer, the education rate is higher, as is homeownership. When it comes to crime, The Atlantic reported last year, “By virtually any metric, Americans now live in one of the least violent times in the nation’s history.”
So why do so many people see the past as better than today? For many of them, it may well have been. Middle- and working-class Americans seduced by appeals to earlier eras may have had higher-paying jobs with better benefits, greater financial security, and a more defined place in the community. Perhaps they were happier. For some, cultural changes since the Saturday night sock-hop may have only strengthened their beliefs that American values have frayed. But an innate psychological trait may also explain why people tend to view the past as better than today: nostalgia.
Most everybody knows the term nostalgia, if not its origin. It was coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688: a portmanteau of nostos and algos, Greek words for homecoming and pain or distress, respectively. And most have an understanding that nostalgia means finding pleasure in remembering or reliving a past experience—hearing a favorite old song, for instance, or remembering a stirring love affair.
Recent science, though, makes good on the etymology of the term. It reveals nostalgia is not just a wistful glow associated with pleasurable events and experiences. It is an innate response to pain or distress, and, in some sense, a coming home. What’s more, cognitive scientists say, a defining trait of nostalgia is its capacity to distort the past.
In the process of looking back, people tend to filter out negative or painful experiences. Memories themselves are often not what they seem. They are not hardwired in our brains, a factual representation of our autobiographical pasts. Rather, memory is fluid, and we’re constantly reframing our personal histories to fit into a greater life arc. In many cases, the past looks as halcyon as it does because rosy hindsight molds it to appear that way to help us maintain mental health. Our past is constantly shifting to accommodate our present.
When Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, and author of Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource, began researching nostalgia, he was interested in how this universally shared feeling might help us better deal with the future. “I started out with this very specific hypothesis of nostalgia as a coping resource,” he says. “We can reflect back in time on experiences that we find personally meaningful. Might we use such past-oriented experiences as a way to cope with future-oriented anxieties?”
Pursuing this hunch, Routledge and a team of researchers at the University of Southampton began looking at the potential benefits of “nostalgizing,” as they termed it: How it might help us maintain equilibrium in times of crisis, recall loving relationships, and generally lean on the bright spots in our pasts.
Nostalgic memories are a central part of our identity, of who we think we are.
In one particular experiment conducted by Tim Wildschut at the University of Southampton, a hub for contemporary nostalgia research, psychologists induced nostalgia in study participants by having them write about a “nostalgic event” from their lives. A control group was instructed to recount in writing a merely “ordinary event.” Researchers found that the group that wrote about a nostalgic event reported more positive affect, higher levels of self-regard, and a stronger sense of social bonds compared with those participants who wrote about an ordinary event.
Subsequent studies further contextualized nostalgia’s utility, showing that it’s frequently triggered by low moods, loneliness, and even a sense of meaninglessness. These triggers suggested that nostalgia might be a kind of defense mechanism, a way to maintain resiliency during periods of anxiety, despair, and existential distress. “What seems to be the case is that nostalgia can be an adaptive tool to deal with a lot of psychological threats,” says Wijnand van Tilburg, a social cognition researcher at King’s College London.
Something less immediately apparent from this new research espousing nostalgia as a mental panacea was how, exactly, it was having such beneficial effects on our mental health and sense of well-being.
Nostalgia, it turns out, helps cultivate what psychologists call “self-continuity.” The concept refers to our ability to maintain our identity and sense of self through the vicissitudes of our lifespans, from the death of a loved one to a career change to devastating illness.
“Self-continuity means the sense that I have this stable, continuous sense of self,” Routledge says. Self-continuity gives coherence to our lives, the impression that there is a permanent, unchanging self underneath the random events and crises that transform our circumstances over the years.
Even before a connection was established with nostalgia, psychologists understood self-continuity as a critical component to a person’s sense of identity, mental well-being, and ability to adapt to shifting conditions. In most cases, self-continuity was a source of psychological equanimity and a way to negotiate existential threats.
Major changes or periods of upheaval can cause us to question ourselves, and feel estranged from our pasts. Psychologists refer to this as “self-discontinuity” or “disjuncture.” Past research has found self-discontinuity—this sense of estrangement from past selves—to be a maladaptive trait, something that causes psychological distress. But a strong sense of self-continuity can help combat those episodes of disjuncture in our lives, when radical change threatens our fundamental sense of who we are.
“I might get divorced, I might move to a new country, I might even become a born-again Christian,” says Susan Bluck, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, who studies autobiographical memory. “How do we have the sense that we’re the same person over time? That’s what self-continuity is.” People with a strong sense of self-continuity also report better mental and physical health, and develop more constructive coping styles.
So how does nostalgia enhance one’s self-continuity? A 2014 study coauthored by Routledge sought to find out. Routledge and his co-authors rated participants on two scales. The first, the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, looks at major life events that may disrupt self-continuity and elicit self-discontinuity. The second was the Southampton Nostalgia Scale, a rating system for nostalgia-proneness. They found a positive correlation between experiences that induce self-discontinuity and an individual’s nostalgia proneness.
The researchers believe these findings indicate that nostalgia is a natural response to self-discontinuity, a psychological tool that mitigates damage to our sense of self. “Nostalgic memories are a central part of our identity, our sense of self, of who we think we are,” Routledge says.
In the study, “nostalgic memories” were simply memories that specifically induced nostalgia, as opposed to, say, ordinary memories that elicited minimal emotional response. Routledge explains that the various phenomena associated with autobiographical memory—chiefly psychological biases called fading affect and rosy retrospection—are ideally suited to induce nostalgia. “The way these memories works, works perfectly for nostalgia,” he says. In other words, the memories inducing nostalgia have been burnished and idealized over time, shorn of their negative aspects. But these recollections serve an important adaptive purpose. “When people are experiencing situations that challenge that sense of self and make them feel uncertain about life, they naturally recruit nostalgia as a way to restore that self-continuity,” Routledge says.
In a separate experiment published in the same study, the authors found that inducing nostalgia raised levels of self-continuity among participants. Not only, then, is nostalgia used to counteract episodes of self-discontinuity, but it also strengthens our sense of an overarching self over a lifetime.
“Nostalgia is really important to help us connect across time the aspects of who we are that are unchanging,” says Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College and one of the first academics to begin reevaluating nostalgia in the 1990s.
Batcho gives the example of long-term relationships. “When you say ‘I love you,’ the assumption underlying that very statement is that there’s something unchanging about the essence of who we are,” she says. “If you didn’t have those unchanging aspects, I would argue it would be extremely difficult to have serious long-lasting human relationships.”
These social psychologists present nostalgia as more than just ephemeral reveries that come and go with smells or songs bound to certain times and places. These memories are valuable tools for resiliency and psychological coping. “When you feel uncertain about what’s going on in your life, you can reassure yourself: I’ve had these important memories that define me,” Routledge says.
But self-continuity still doesn’t fully explain how nostalgia casts its spell. What enables us to focus only on certain events and episodes, or cut through ambivalence and zero in on the happier aspects of our relationships? As it turns out, our memories are partial. Biased. They are not objective representations of our pasts. Instead, they often magnify our positive experiences, while gradually diminishing negative ones. This is referred to as the fading affect bias.
Since at least the 1930s, psychologists have been researching the phenomenon of the human tendency to forget negative emotions associated with their memories faster than positive emotions. “The impact of negative emotions fade faster than positive emotions,” Routledge says.
In a study by Colorado State University psychologist Richard Walker in 1997, participants recorded and rated events based on how pleasant they were. They then reevaluated those events, respectively, three months, one-and-a-half years, and four-and-a-half years later, again rating them based on pleasantness. Researchers found that while participants rated most experiences as less extreme over time—either less pleasant or less unpleasant—negative emotions faded faster. Walker’s findings have been corroborated many times over, including a study in 2014 that showed fading affect bias prevalent worldwide, in countries ranging from Australia to Germany to Ghana.
“People seem pretty good at getting over things,” Routledge says. “We have this psychological immune system that helps reduce the impact of negative experiences. They fade faster.”
People who feel nostalgic for a past era perceive the current situation as unacceptable.
Not all negative memories and unpleasant experiences fade quickly or even at all, of course. Bluck is quick to draw the distinction between the negative affect associated with certain memories that we all experience, and the trauma that is anything but fading. “We’re not talking about highly traumatic life events,” Bluck says. “For example, PTSD can have uncontrolled, involuntary rumination over really traumatic events. That mechanism holds for certain kinds of very difficult events. At the same time, for everyone, this general positive affect bias is going on in everyday life.”
Multiple social psychologists say nostalgia is associated with fading affect bias, although the connection is oblique. “The rose-tinted glasses phenomenon is just naturally how personal memories work,” Routledge says.
One possible explanation for fading affect bias is it’s an evolutionary adaptation—over time, individuals who reflected on their pasts more fondly and were able to dismiss the painful parts proliferated through natural selection. “That’s very possible,” Batcho says. Studies have found that nostalgia can help individuals survive through the most adverse circumstances. A 2012 study coauthored by Xinyue Zhou and Tim Wildschut found that nostalgizing could actually make one report feeling warmer while gritting through frigid temperatures. As Wildschut told The New York Times, nostalgia “could contribute to survival by making you look for food and shelter for that much longer.” Psychologists find the circumstantial evidence of nostalgia’s evolutionary properties hard to deny. “In that sense, you could argue, it could very well be an adaptation,” Batcho says.
Last summer, in the heat of the presidential race, the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank devoted to governance, published a set of articles on nostalgia. One, “Nostalgia for a Past That Never Quite Was,” by Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy at the University of Southern California, and author of, most recently, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, provided insight into why nostalgia is an adaptation. “There is no doubt that nostalgia is a valuable feeling or it would have long been dismissed from the human toolkit,” Damasio wrote. What makes nostalgia valuable is that its emotional tenor, either sadness or joy, brings about a time of inaction, a time to reason, make decisions, work out solutions.
However, Damasio explained, the comforts of nostalgia come with a warning. We “need to be alert,” he wrote, “to one reason why remembrances can be comforting: Our memories can be selective; they are great film editors, capable of glorifying some facts and suppressing others when they are inconvenient. Also, there is a tendency, across a lifetime, to re-experience memorized facts and events with a positive slant, possibly part of an adaptive but non-conscious attempt to increase one’s wellbeing.”
Neuroscientists have long shown the act of remembering colors our past experiences. “Memory, rather than being something that’s static, and doesn’t change, is really a fluid phenomenon,” says Alan Hirsch, a neurologist who has studied nostalgia and memory since the early 1990s. That fluidity, Hirsch explains, allows us to mold memory to our advantage. He goes so far as to compare our propensity for reshaping our pasts with individuals suffering from Korsakoff Syndrome—typically chronic drinkers with severely impaired memories—who confabulate to compensate for lost or fuzzy memories. “It’s almost like that, to a small degree,” he says. “They’re filling in the things in the past.”
To delve further into memory, Routledge is working on a study in which Britons who were children during World War II put together narratives of their experiences. While most of the narratives include many painful and even traumatic episodes—children being estranged from their parents or hiding underground during the Nazi bombing of Britain—their accounts of the war also invoke dimensions that may have taken decades to fully reveal themselves. Despite all the fear and upheaval, survivors recall spending time with extended family, reaching an intimacy with their cousins, aunts, and uncles that wouldn’t have been possible outside of those extraordinary circumstances. “They’ve been able to re-construe, or learn some sort of life lesson from that experience, which at the time must have been terrifying.” Routledge says.
While the World War II survivors in Routledge’s study may never look back on the war as a categorically positive experience, time allows them to reshuffle the deck, producing a more measured view that accentuates the period’s redeeming qualities. “If you look at nostalgia memories, it’s not the case that they’re universally positive,” Routledge says. “It’s that the narrative arc of the memory is redemptive.”
Most of the psychologists I spoke to agreed that nostalgia—recalling past experiences, even if selective, positive ones, reshaped by time—had a salutary personal effect. They also, however, acknowledged the social consequences of nostalgia during politically charged periods—how it might influence the way people see issues and candidates, and subsequently how they vote.
“There is a real concern about the potential dark side of nostalgia,” Routledge says. “What I think people are doing is imagining the positive. They’re plucking features that they think are better, like ‘Oh, maybe life was simpler, or people could get better jobs.’ I don’t know what they’re holding onto but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was true, first of all. And they’re probably not thinking about who it negatively affected.”
Batcho, too, was careful to point out nostalgia should not be stereotyped. Not everybody who experiences and derives comfort from nostalgia does so in order to brighten his view of the present. “People who tend to be more historically nostalgic are people who tend to view the present less favorably than people who are more personally nostalgic,” she says. “If you think about people who want to feel nostalgic for a past era, a past age in history, they’re people who perceive the current situation as somehow unacceptable, they’re unhappy with it.”
Still, the point remains that nostalgia, an innate, adaptive trait, is a necessary guide through the thickets of memory and experience. In the end, says Routledge, “Our brains are just trying to make sense of life.”
Mike Mariani is a writer based in Hoboken, New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, and others. You can follow him @mikesmariani.
This article was originally published in our “Consciousness” issue in April, 2017.