If you want to feel more optimistic about what the future holds, sometimes it helps to look at the past. That’s because taking a minute to bask in nostalgic memories can make you feel more positive about what’s in store. And as I’ve talked about here before, optimism tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy that’s associated with all kinds of good mental health outcomes.
In a paper titled Back to the Future: Nostalgia Increases Optimism, a team of researchers from the UK raised the possibility that nostalgia “is not simply a past-oriented emotion,” but rather one whose “scope extends into the future.” A series of studies by the researchers showed that feelings of nostalgia do indeed tend to generate feelings of optimism, and gave some possible reasons for why this might be the case.
The first two experiments the researchers did focused on whether it was really true that nostalgia increased optimism. The researchers found that when people wrote about nostalgic past experiences vs. non-nostalgic past experiences, they used more words and phrases that were associated with optimism. Moreover, when people were asked to recall nostalgic (as compared with non-nostalgic) events from the past, they reported higher feelings of optimism.
Next, the researchers turned to why feelings of nostalgia might in turn create feelings of optimism. They found one possible reason: self-esteem. Further experiments showed that when people listened to nostalgia-provoking songs, their optimism increased, but that the link between nostalgia and optimism could be explained by an increase in self-esteem.
You might have heard before that optimism is linked not only with better mental health but better physical health too. So does this mean nostalgia can improve your physical health? Yes!
A study titled An Exercise in Nostalgia: Nostalgia Promotes Health Optimism and Physical Activity found that engaging in “nostalgic reverie” – specifically, writing about a nostalgic event (vs. a non-nostalgic event) – made people more optimistic about their future health.
And guess what? Self-fulfilling prophecy – when these people became more optimistic about their health, they also formed more positive health attitudes and ended up exercising more over the following two weeks. You might think nostalgic daydreaming is a waste of time, but it could end up saving your life!
In a way, it makes sense that nostalgia is like optimism, just with the direction of time reversed. More generally, the connection between nostalgia and optimism is an example of a pattern that often comes up in psychology: feeling positive emotions tends to lead to feeling more positive emotions. Feeling nostalgia leads to feeling self-esteem, and feeling self-esteem leads to feeling optimism. And feeling optimism leads to all kinds of good things, including actually doing good things like exercising more.
Image: Flickr/Kalyan Chakravarthy