Nostalgia, or the good feeling one gets when thinking about the past, may not get the respect it deserves. A recent study in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology concludes that the more nostalgic one is, the more authentic one feels, which has positive consequences for psychological well-being. The research team found correlational and experimental support for their hypothesis. Moreover, the result was cross-cultural. individuals from the United States, China, and the United Kingdom were included in the study.
Factors that improve psychological well-being (PWB) are often studied and properly used as treatment components or valuable life advice. However, for some factors, it is not always clear why it improves PWB. Previous studies have found that nostalgic thinking improves PWB, but why was unknown. Nicholas Kelley and colleagues set out to answer this question with a series of four studies.
Their hypothesis is that the feeling of authenticity created by nostalgic thinking increases PWB. Understanding how behaviors or cognitions improve PWB provides opportunities to create innovative methods to increase PWB.
The first of four studies confirmed a relationship between nostalgia, PWB, and authenticity. In these studies, authenticity was defined as “the sense that one is in alignment with one’s true self.” Psychological well-being was assessed with the Brief Inventory of Thriving (BIT).
The remaining studies were experimental and demonstrated cause and effect at each step. The second study showed that nostalgia increased authenticity. The third study found that authenticity increased PWB, and the fourth study found that authenticity increased PWB across all dimensions of well-being. There were 2423 participants aged 18-78, approximately 50% American, 33% Chinese and 17% British.
The researchers argued that psychological well-being is composed of many factors and wondered whether authenticity had implications for some or all of the factors. Their results found that nostalgia-induced authenticity resulted in statistically significant increases in all measured components of psychological well-being (social relationships, vitality, competence, meaning in life, optimism, and subjective well-being).
This was true cross-culturally, with participants from the US, UK and China producing similar results. These findings demonstrate that a pleasant stroll down memory lane can induce feelings of authenticity and thereby improve overall well-being.
The research team acknowledges that more research needs to be done. For example, does feeling authentic lead to behaving authentically? Future research could include subjective measures of authenticity, or subjects could keep a diary of feelings and behaviors related to nostalgia, authenticity, and well-being as they go about their daily lives.
Regardless of future research, this work is an important contribution to understanding the benefits of authenticity. Much of the previous research has been correlational. The work of Kelley and colleagues contributes experimental data to the literature. In their words, “Thus, we have shown, for the first time, that nostalgia instills a general sense of psychological well-being. Our work has implications for process models of the benefits of nostalgia.”
The study, “Nostalgia Offers Psychological Well-Being by Increasing Authenticity,” was authored by Nicholas Kelley, William Davis, William Davis, Jianning Dang, Li Liu, Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides.