A longitudinal study in China found that habitual nostalgia tends to follow distress and serves to relieve it. Distress at an earlier time point predicted later increased nostalgia, while earlier nostalgia was associated with reduced distress six months later. The study was published in the Journal of Personality.
Nostalgia is a psychological state or tendency characterized by frequent and persistent longing for past experiences, places, or times. It was first scientifically described in the late 17th century in a doctoral dissertation submitted to a Swiss university which described the experiences of a group of Swiss mercenaries who, living in France or Italy, yearned for their homeland. It was initially seen as a neurological affliction, later as a clinical disorder.
Modern views note that nostalgia can be both a state and a trait. As a trait, nostalgia refers to a tendency to habitually rekindle fond memories, such as those involving one’s childhood or close relationships. As a state, it involves experiencing those emotions. Studies have linked nostalgia with distress, but a question remains of whether higher nostalgia is associated with lower or higher distress levels.
Contrary to the view of nostalgia as an affliction, research has shown that persons with higher levels of nostalgia perceive higher social support, better maintain their wellbeing and are more proficient at using it to gain psychological benefits, such as increased optimism.
Study author Yuqi Wang and her colleagues wanted to better explore the link between nostalgia and distress. They wanted to know whether it is nostalgia that causes distress, as initially thought, or is it distress that causes nostalgia. They conducted a longitudinal study.
Participants were 3,167 freshmen students of the Zhejiang Ocean University in China, with an average age of 19. They completed assessments between the 2nd and 9th week of their first semester at the university and six months later for the second time.
Participants completed assessments of the Big Five personality traits (Big Five factor markers from the International Personality Item Pool, a scale validated in China), distress (the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale), and nostalgia (the Southampton Nostalgia Scale).
Results showed that levels of distress and levels of nostalgia were highly associated. There was a positive association between the level of distress and the level of nostalgia at the same time point – higher levels of nostalgia were associated with higher levels of distress (and vice versa) at the same point in time.
However, when associations between earlier nostalgia and later distress and between earlier distress and later nostalgia were examined, results showed that higher earlier nostalgia was associated with lower distress 6 months later. In contrast, higher distress at the beginning of the semester was associated with higher nostalgia 6 months later. These associations remained even after taking differences in personality traits into account.
“These findings reveal that experiencing higher level of distress at an earlier time is prognostic of later nostalgia, whereas resorting to nostalgia more frequently at an earlier time predicts lower levels of later distress. Distress, both psychological and physical, instigates nostalgia. Nostalgia, in turn, acts as a protective mechanism alleviating the adverse consequences of distress,” the study authors conclude.
The study makes an important contribution to understanding the psychological effects of nostalgia. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all participants were first year university students, many of whom have moved to a new location for studying and were thus in a situation that might induce nostalgia. Results on other groups, as well as on populations outside China might not yield the same results.
The study, “Distress prospectively predicts higher nostalgia, and nostalgia prospectively predicts lower distress”, was authored by Yuqi Wang, Constantine Sedikides, Tim Wildschut, Ying Yang, and Huajian Cai.