Nostalgia, or the good feeling one gets when thinking about the past, may not be getting the respect it deserves. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology concludes that the more nostalgic one is, the more authentic one feels, which has positive consequences for psychological well-being. The research team found correlational and experimental support for their hypothesis. Moreover, the effect was cross-cultural; subjects from the United States, China, and the United Kingdom were included in the study.
Factors that improve psychological well-being (PWB) are studied frequently and put to good use as components of therapy or valuable life advice. However, for some factors, it is not always clear why it improves PWB. Prior studies have found that nostalgic thinking improves PWB, but why was unknown. Nicholas Kelley and colleagues set out to answer this question with a series of four studies.
Their hypothesis is the feeling of authenticity, generated by nostalgic thinking that increases PWB. Understanding how behaviors or cognitions improve PWB provides opportunities to establish innovative methods to increase PWB.
The first of the four studies confirmed a relationship between nostalgia, PWB, and authenticity. In these studies, authenticity was defined as “the sense that one is in alignment with one’s true self.” Psychological well-being was assessed with the Brief Inventory of Thriving (BIT).
The remaining studies were experimental and demonstrated cause and effect with each step. Study two demonstrated that nostalgia increased authenticity. Study three found authenticity increased PWB, and study four found authenticity increased PWB across all well-being concepts. There were 2423 participants aged 18-78, approximately 50% were American, 33% Chinese, and 17% British.
The researchers posited that psychological well-being is made up of many factors and were curious if authenticity had consequences for some or all of the factors. Their results found authenticity, induced with nostalgia, resulted in statistically significant increases in all measured components of psychological well-being (social relationships, vitality, competence, meaning of life, optimism, and subjective well-being).
This was true cross-culturally, with participants from the U.S., U.K., and China producing similar results. These findings demonstrate that an enjoyable walk down memory lane can induce feelings of authenticity and thus improve total well-being.
The research team acknowledges there is more research to be done. For example, does feeling authentic result in behaving authentically? Future research could include subjective measures of authenticity, or subjects could keep a diary of feelings and behaviors related to nostalgia, authenticity, and well-being as they move through their daily lives.
Regardless of future research, this work is a meaningful contribution to our understanding of the benefits of authenticity. Much of the prior research has been correlational. The work of Kelley and colleagues contributes experimental data to the literature. In their words, “Thus, we showed, for the first time, that nostalgia instills a general sense of psychological thriving. Our work has implications for process models of nostalgia’s benefits.”
The study, “Nostalgia confers psychological well-being by increasing authenticity” , was authored by Nicholas Kelley, William Davis, William Davis, Jianning Dang, Li Liu, Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides.