Nostalgia and homesickness are part and parcel of the human experience. Most of us associate them with feelings of sadness and sometimes loss, but do they actually play a positive role in the human psyche? Medical News Today investigates.

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The term “nostalgia” originates from Ancient Greek via New Latin, and it is a composite of the root words “nostos,” meaning “home,” and “algos,” meaning “pain.”

Essentially, it refers to the pain of being far away from home. The first time “nostalgia” came into use was in 17th-century Switzerland, when physician Johannes Hofer identified it as a condition specific to Swiss mercenary soldiers.

Hofer identified nostalgia as a disease of the mind, and he described its mechanism as below:

“Nostalgia […] is sympathic of an afflicted imagination. Hence, from the living spirits entirely by its own momentum along uncommon routes through the untouched courses of the channels of the brain to the body, and by revisiting the oval tubes of the center brain, it is originated by arousing especially the uncommon and ever-present idea of the recalled native land in the mind.”

Some of the symptoms that accompanied this “affliction” included “persistent thinking of home, bouts of weeping, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, anorexia, insomnia, and even smothering sensations.” This is according to a paper published in 2006 by Profs Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides, from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, and their colleagues.

Physician J. J. Scheuchzer, who lived and worked around the same time as Hofer, had a similar view of nostalgia. However, he argued that it was not a result of an internal imbalance of the mind, but a condition influenced by external factors.

According to him, nostalgia was caused by “a sharp differential in atmospheric pressure causing excessive body pressurization, which in turn drove blood from the heart to the brain, thereby producing the observed affliction of sentiment.”

For many centuries, doctors persisted in understanding nostalgia as a state of ill health that required treatment. However, views around its mechanisms and typology, as well as around which demographics it affected, kept shifting over the years.

In a paper from 2008, Profs Wildschut, Sedikides, and their colleagues note that, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, doctors thought nostalgia only affected the Swiss, since they mostly observed it in the Swiss mercenary soldiers that lent their services to foreign armies.

Prof. Svetlana Boym writes that, at this time, cures for nostalgia included “leeches, warm hypnotic emulsions, opium” and returning home, to the Alps.

In the early 19th century, however, physicians had begun to acknowledge it as a widespread condition that they saw as a form of melancholy or depression.

Throughout the 20th century, doctors kept changing their minds about the nature of nostalgia, though they mostly associated it with homesickness, an unhelpful psychological mechanism experienced by students and migrants unable to adapt to a new life away from home.

In their 2008 article, Profs Wildschut, Sedikides, and their colleagues explain:

“By the beginning of the 20th century, nostalgia was regarded as a psychiatric disorder. Symptoms included anxiety, sadness, and insomnia. By the mid-20th century, psychodynamic approaches considered nostalgia a subconscious desire to return to an earlier life stage, and it was labeled as a repressive compulsive disorder. Soon thereafter, nostalgia was downgraded to a variant of depression, marked by loss and grief, though still equated with homesickness.”

In their 2006 article, they also point out that, for much of the 20th century, some psychologists viewed nostalgia as an “immigrant psychosis,” a “mentally repressive compulsive disorder,” or “a regressive manifestation closely related to the issue of loss, grief, incomplete mourning, and, finally, depression.”

According to Profs Wildschut, Sedikides, and their colleagues, in the late 20th century, doctors and researchers started to differentiate between nostalgia and homesickness.

They suggest homesickness became conflated with mental health issues, such as separation anxiety, whereas nostalgia began to be associated with idealized images of childhood or past happy times.

So is nostalgia — and even homesickness — a sign that a person is unable to adapt to a new life, new surroundings, or the realities of adult life? Or does it also play a positive role in the human psyche?

Physicians no longer treat nostalgia as a disorder, but the phenomenon continues to interest researchers.

Profs Wildschut, Sedikides, and their colleagues sought to learn more about this mental state in a series of studies conducted in 2006.

One study, based on the self-reported experiences of the participants, indicated that nostalgia is, by and large, “a positively toned and self-relevant emotion that is often associated with the recall of experiences involving interactions with important others or of momentous life events.”

Nostalgic memories, the researchers found, often contained a mixture of happiness and sadness that ultimately came together to form a constructive narrative:

“Although most narratives contained negative as well as positive elements, these elements were often juxtaposed so as to form a redemption sequence — a narrative pattern that progresses from a negative to a positive or triumphant life scene.”

A second study confirmed that nostalgia helps form a constructive narrative of meaningful events from the past, but it also identified some of the most common triggers of nostalgia.

According to the researchers, most participants experienced nostalgia when faced with difficult life situations, such as present worries and anxieties. This suggested that casting their minds back to a happier or more meaningful time helped participants cope with present uncertainties.

“Chief among the perceived benefits of nostalgia were its capacity to generate positive affect, bolster social bonds, and increase positive self-regard,” Profs Wildschut, Sedikides, and their colleagues write.

Further research reveals other ways that nostalgia can be beneficial. For example, a 2012 paper reports that this mental state can help increase a person’s willingness to help others, thanks to the fact that it strengthens the sense of social connectedness.

According to Dr. Krystine Batcho — professor of psychology at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY — nostalgia also helps strengthen a person’s identity, their sense of self.

In an interview for the American Psychological Association, she asserts that “nostalgia is an emotional experience that unifies,” that “helps unite our sense of who we are, our self, our identity over time,” and “gives us a sense of who we want to be […] in the future.”

Most recently, in June 2020, Dr. Andrew Abeyta — from The State University of New Jersey in Camden — and his colleagues show that indulging in nostalgic thinking can help reduce the negative psychological impact of loneliness.

“Based on the current research, stopping the cycle of loneliness may involve looking to the past for confidence and encouragement,” the researchers conclude.

So when our minds fall back on cherished memories of the past, it may be best to allow ourselves this bittersweet experience.