I confess to taking guilty pleasure in the paintings of Norman Rockwell. A few years ago, a friend dragged me to a major retrospective on the artist's work, and I got hooked on the images of kids doing homework and families gathering for holiday dinners and communities turning out for local sporting events. I know some find this vision too cloying for our postmodern sensibilities, but for me the images stir up memories of a simpler past. Something inside me responds to the human connection in Rockwell's idealized world.
That's called nostalgia, and it turns out it's not an entirely bad thing. In fact, my response to these treacly images may be deep-wired into my neurons, and for good reason. A growing number of psychologists have become interested in this uniquely human emotion, in particular its connection to loneliness and social isolation and emotional resilience. Indeed, some believe that nostalgia may be a powerful psychological tool for fostering mental health, a coping strategy we use to protect ourselves against the existential fear of being alone.
People who are chronically lonely perceive themselves as disconnected from others, especially family and friends; they feel isolated from all the traditional sources of social support. Are lonely people more likely to be nostalgic than others? Is it possible that nostalgia—that sentimental longing for the past—might have a tonic effect on loneliness, buffering against these feelings of isolation?
That is the idea that psychologist Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University in China decided to explore in the laboratory. Zhou and colleagues ran a series of experiments to explore the value of nostalgia in counteracting the emotional costs of loneliness, for people from many walks of life. They wanted to see if nostalgic reverie could create symbolic connections with others—connections powerful enough to temper the very real pangs of isolation.
Here's an example. The psychologists recruited hundreds of migrant children who had moved from remote rural areas to a major city just a few years earlier. These kids were about 11 years old on average, so we can all imagine how emotionally disruptive such an experience must have been and how alien their new world must have seemed. They gave the kids a battery of psychological tests to measure just how lonely they were after a few years in the city, how nostalgic they were for the past and how supportive they saw the people in their world.
The results were paradoxical. The loneliest kids did indeed see the world as unfriendly and unsupportive. But many of the loneliest kids were also among the most nostalgic, and this nostalgia appears to have a buffering effect. That is, loneliness seems to churn up nostalgic memories, which in turn salve the pain of loneliness. Nostalgia is self-protective.
The psychologists ran similar experiments with college students and factory workers, using a variety of experimental methods. In some studies they actually induced feelings of loneliness or nostalgic thoughts in order to double-check the paradoxical findings. The results were basically the same in all the studies. It appears that, regardless of age or circumstances, the lonely mind has the ability to protect itself from emotional pain by recruiting romanticized memories of the past.
But how? Why do some individuals summon up nostalgic memories to buffer their loneliness, while others do not? Zhou thinks it may have to do with basic personality. Psychologists have known for some time that people differ on a trait called resilience. Resilience is basically the ability to shake off life's insults, to roll with the punches; it's emotional hardiness. The psychologists suspected that people with resilient personalities would be more likely to use nostalgia as a coping strategy. And that's just what they found. When they gave the factory workers a personality inventory on top of the other tests, they found that the most resilient individuals were also most likely to use nostalgic memories for self-protection.
These findings, reported in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science, have clear clinical implications. Loneliness, at its pathological extreme, is nothing less than existential dread—terror at being disconnected in the universe. Such fear can lead to disabling anxiety and depression. If nostalgia is an antidote to such fear, Zhou argues, perhaps patients might be taught to recruit sentimental memories as a therapeutic tool for creating a healthful sense of human connection.
How all this unfolds in the brain is still unclear, but one idea is that nostalgia increases the accessibility of certain restorative experiences—moments of human connection. The brain may do this by calling up actual visual images, in effect flipping through an internal photo album and reminiscing. Not all that different than strolling through a Norman Rockwell retrospective.