We’ve all had the experience of looking back and feeling nostalgic about a particular time in our lives.
A slightly more complicated feeling is looking forward to the future to imagine how we’ll one day look back on the present with nostalgia. Psychologists call this experience anticipated nostalgia. Another way to describe it, as in the title of a recent study, is looking forward to looking back.
The study found that anticipated nostalgia often involves interpersonal relationships. For example, imagine moving away from a good friend and thinking “I’m going to miss you” or visualizing how you’ll reflect back on your time together.
But anticipated nostalgia doesn’t only concern interpersonal relationships. People commonly reported expectations of future nostalgia over their current living situation, life plans, and cultural environment.
Like actual nostalgia, anticipated future nostalgia appears to be a bittersweet mix. The researchers found that it was emotionally related to feelings of both happiness and sadness as well as connectedness with other people.
Overall, expected nostalgia for the present appears to be a positive emotion. People with higher anticipated nostalgia tended to savor the experiences they anticipated feeling nostalgic about.
And when people felt more anticipated nostalgia prior to a major life transition, their feelings of anticipated nostalgia appeared to help them adjust. Not only did they actually feel more nostalgic a few months after the transition, but those feelings of nostalgia correlated with a greater sense of meaning in life, more social connectedness, and higher self-esteem.
These findings suggest that nostalgia is more complex than just being in the present and looking back at the past. It’s also tied up with how we expect to look back at the present in the future, and it’s an emotion that seems to offer support in coping with the changes life brings.