Why Do We Feel Nostalgia? A New Study Says It Has More To Do With Sadness Than You Think

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Who among us hasn't spent time waxing nostalgic about bygone days? While you might think nostalgia gives you all the warm-and-fuzzy feels, recent research shows that unhappiness triggers nostalgia, too. And in turn, nostalgia can perpetuate unhappiness. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that spending a good portion of every day mired in the past is associated with negative feelings.

"Nostalgia is a mixed emotion," David Newman, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. candidate at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said in an article by Emily Gersema on the university's website. "It also is negative. We found that people are most likely to think of the good old days when something goes wrong in the present." In fact, whether feelings of nostalgia trigger positive or negative emotions has to do with how you're feeling on a particular day and what promoted the nostalgic feelings.

Negative nostalgic thoughts can run the gamut from convincing yourself life was better in the past to beating yourself up for things in the past that you might perceive as negatively affecting your life in the present. The study explained that when prompted to think about positive experiences from the past, people generally felt good. On the other hand, unprompted nostalgia during the course of everyday life was associated with negative emotions.

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This makes a whole lot of sense. If you're stuck in a cycle of thoughts from the past, be gentle with yourself. "Try not to be frustrated with yourself if you can’t stop thinking about the past. It’s a normal and healthy thing that your brain does in order to get your attention," Erin Carpenter, LCSW and founder of Denver-based Thrive Counseling, explained on her website. "It’s saying 'hey, this thing needs to integrated into your life now. It’s over but I haven’t processed it yet.'"

On his website, Psychotherapist Tim Hill explained that there are two ways to think about the past, rumination and introspection. Whereas introspection is a form of curiosity and self exploration, rumination is focused on regret and results in what he referred to as wheel spinning. "There is little pleasure or insight to be gained from rumination; on the contrary, it's more associated with anxiety and depression. Rumination has a heavy and automatic tone to it," Hill said.

This is perhaps why unprompted daily nostalgia makes you feel dark and twisty. "At those times, where we think about the past and we wonder what we might have done differently, or we wonder about the actions of others, we are essentially spinning our wheels," Hill explained. "In doing this, we don't draw anything from the past but continue to sink our present moment into our regrets."

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The study also found that participants noted they felt stressed, anxious, depressed, and lonely on days when they also felt nostalgic, Gersema reported. In addition, they reported lower self-esteem, and increased regret and rumination on these days, which caused them to feel less calm the following day.

On the other hand, nostalgia triggered positive feelings on days when participants helped others, were reminded of old friendships, music from their past, and when they engaged with social media. "The results from these studies stand in sharp contrast to the prevailing conclusion from previous research, which had indicated that nostalgia is a mixed but predominantly positive emotion," Newman said in the article. He also noted that feeling poorly in the present "colored nostalgia in a negative light."

If experiencing nostalgia is making you feel bajiggity, it actually might be rumination. While a little rumination is good, if it's taking over your life, it's OK to ask for help. If you don't have health insurance, and you're not sure how to find an affordable therapist, you can go to the website Low Cost Help and search for free and reduced-cost options by city and state. Because, getting out of the past and into the present could make you feel better.