Wistful Thinking: Why We Are Wired to Dwell on the Past

The title of this post is identical to the title of a piece by Teal Burrell in the 24 September 2016 issue of the “New Scientist.”  The article is about nostalgia.  Most of us experience it at least once a week according to research by Tim Wildschut and his colleagues at the University of Southhampton, UK.  Nostalgia is not the cause of loneliness.  Rather it is the antidote to loneliness.  It springs up when we are feeling low and, in general, boosts well-being.  Reflecting on nostalgic events we have experienced forges bonds with other people, and enhances positive feelings and self-esteem according to Wildschut and his colleagues.

Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University  evoked “personal nostalgia” in volunteers by having them listen to songs that had particular meaning to them, the emotion increased perceptions of purpose in life.  When volunteers were asked questions about the point of it all, nostalgia ramped up.  Rutledge says “When people feel uncertain or uncomfortable or unsure, they might use their memories as a stabilizing force.

One notion is that nostalgia gives us a sense of continuity in life.  Although many things in our lives can change—jobs, where we live, relationships—nostalgia reminds us that we are the same person we were on our seventh birthday party as on our wedding day and at our retirement celebration.  Kristine Batch of Le Moyne College says, “It is the glue that keeps us together, gives us continuity, and we need that, ever more so, in times of change.”

Sociologist Fred Davis compared being nostalgic to applying for a bank loan.  Looking back at out past is like checking our credit history.  Other researchers have found the reflecting on nostalgic memories boosts optimism and makes people more inspired to pursue their goals.

Julia Shaw who studies the fallibility of memory at London South Bank University says that nostalgia is a by-product of how we remember.  Memories are inaccurate:  we filter them to focus on the positive.  Each time we reactivate the memory, we make it susceptible to alteration.  Whenever we summon a memory, we might lose some nuances and add misinformation.

Nostalgic memory is about the emotion, not what really happened.  Specific details are either not accurate at all or we confabulate them.  We might not remember  the precise details, but we remember the emotions surrounding the event.

Shaw says that this bias towards positive emotion is at the heart of theories about why we feel nostalgia.  Nostalgic memories tend to be of the best days.  If we fixate on the negative instead, as depressed people are prone to do, it would leave us from an evolutionary perspective in a worse state in terms of adapting and surviving.

When a group shares a vision of the past, collective nostalgia, it promotes a sense of belonging and strengthens group bonds, which may ave had survival benefits in early triple societies.  But that cohesion comes at the cost of driving discrimination towards outsiders.

Nostalgia can lead to a belief in the carefree past that “never really existed.”  Nativist political campaigns in the UK, France, and the US have all hearkened back to a a fabled golden time—as epitomized by Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again” slogan—but those “good all days” had worse standards of living, higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancies and plenty of other troubles.  Holding up the ideal of a more homogeneous past also made it easy to scapegoat those who weren’t part of it.  So nostalgia can be used to promote disinformation.

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