Picture this: You’re sitting in your car at a stoplight mindlessly staring off into the distance when a memory from your childhood pops into your mind. Initially, thinking about the memory makes you feel happy, but then you start feeling a pang of sadness for that time long gone. If you’ve experienced that feeling of happiness tinged with sadness, you’ve experienced nostalgia.
My guest today is a psychologist who has spent his career researching this oft-overlooked emotion. His name Clay Routledge and he’s a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, and author of Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource. Today on the show, Clay takes us deep into the psychology of nostalgia. We begin by discussing what exactly nostalgia is, what it feels like, and what induces nostalgic feelings. Clay then delves into the benefits of nostalgia, such as alleviating depression and loneliness and providing meaning in your life. We then get into the downsides of nostalgia and how to avoid them. We end our conversation discussing why we feel nostalgic for time periods we didn’t even experience ourselves and the possible benefits of that type of nostalgia.
After this show, you’ll be wanting to bust out old photo albums to take a trip down memory lane.
- What is nostalgia? How is it different from your run-of-the-mill memories?
- The Greek origin of the word and concept
- Why nostalgia used to be viewed as a sickness
- The common themes of nostalgic memories
- What’s going on when we have nostalgia for a time and place we didn’t live in?
- How nostalgia connects us to history and our family’s past
- The points of our life where we feel more or less nostalgic in general
- Why do humans experience nostalgia?
- Is nostalgia just a balm? Or can it actually spur people into action?
- How nostalgia mobilizes
- What is self-continuity? What role does nostalgia play in that?
- How nostalgia can help us find our meaning in life
- The downsides of nostalgia
- Triggers that induce nostalgia (including awesome 90s bands)
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- In Defense of Nostalgia
- Cultivating a Nostalgic Love for History
- Why Every Man Should Do His Genealogy
- How to Do Your Genealogy
- Podcast: How to Find Your Purpose
Nostalgia was a fascinating overview of this oft overlooked emotion. I’ve actually been looking for ways to inject a bit more nostalgia in my life after reading it.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now Picture this, you’re sitting in your car mindlessly staring off into the distance when a memory from your childhood pops into your mind. It can be anything Christmas, playing checkers with your dad, whatever.
Initially thinking about this memory makes you feel pretty happy but then you start feeling kind of sad. If you experience that feeling of happiness tinged with sadness when remembering something, you’ve experienced nostalgia. My guest today is a psychologist who has spent his career researching this oft overlooked emotion.
His name is Clay Routledge and he’s a professor of psychology at the North Dakota State university. And today on the show Clay takes us deep into the psychology of nostalgia. We begin by discussing what exactly nostalgia is, what it feels like, and what induces nostalgic feelings. Clay then delves into the benefits of nostalgia such as alleviating depression and loneliness and providing meaning in your life.
You think getting into the downsides of nostalgia, trying to feel nostalgia too much and how to avoid that, we end our conversation discussing why we can feel nostalgic for time periods we didn’t even experience ourselves and the possible benefits of that type of nostalgia. After the show’s over, you’ll be wanting to bust out old photo albums to take a trip down memory lane. Now after you’ve done that, check out our show notes at AON dot is slash nostalgia.
Clay Routledge. Welcome to the show.
Clay Routledge: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a psychologist who has spent a lot of time researching nostalgia. You don’t see a lot of papers about nostalgia, you see a lot about the big five, right? Or things like that, so what got you researching the psychology of nostalgia?
Clay Routledge: So when I was in graduate school I was really more broadly interested in how humans navigate time. What I mean by that is, compared to other animals we have this unique capacity for temporal thought. So we can think about the past, we can think about the future. We can run different sorts of simulations about these different points and time. And so I was just broadly interested in just the implications of being an animal that has to grapple with the awareness of time.
In fact most of my work or a lot of it I should say has focused on the ability to think about the future and the implications of that, especially the existential implications of being about to think about future mortality.
And so when I was in graduate school doing this work I was actually working on a chapter for a book on temporal consciousness with my PhD advisor and we started toying around with how people used the past. You know, how they reflect on the past, which we do in many ways of course. But what really seemed really interesting to us was this possibility that people have this ability to think about the future and that can be exciting of course, because we can think about goals and things we’re looking forward to. But it can also be threatening because it’s a reminder of our vulnerability and frailty.
And so then we started thinking well maybe people actually turn to the past as a way to combat some of their insecurities and worries about the future. And, in particularly they might bring to mind nostalgic memories that make them feel warm and safe and meaningful as a way to cope with some of their anxieties about future concerns.
So really that’s how I got into it was not just a fixation of nostalgia, but just more broadly how people deal with being temporal, and ultimately existential animals.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’d love to talk about that idea of thinking about our temporal future. But let’s talk about this nostalgia, all right, so I think we all can describe nostalgia. We’ve all experienced it. In your research, how do you guys describe nostalgia? With psychology, I think you get more precise besides just, “Oh, I have this fond memory.” So what exactly, how do you describe nostalgia? And how is it different from say just remembering any other memory from your past?
Clay Routledge: That’s an excellent distinction because when we first started doing this we actually wanted to see if our kind of more theoretical or scholarly conception of nostalgia did in fact align with more lay conceptions of nostalgia. This becomes important for a number of reasons. But the dictionary definition to start is that nostalgia is a sentimental or wistful longing for the past.
And when look at nostalgia we often define it in that way. So in some of the studies we’ve done for example, we provide … if we’re going to ask people to bring to mind in detail a nostalgic memory, we often provide them with that dictionary definition.
Beforehand just to get a sense that everyone kind of knows where we’re coming from. But we’ve also done a number of studies looking at lay, or just more common conceptions of nostalgia and they converge quite nicely with this more scholarly approach.
In a nutshell I would say the consensus seems to be that nostalgic memories are these memories that people find particularly meaningful or sentimental. And what distinguishes them from more ordinary memories seems to be that that potency of meaning.
So you can ask people for example to say, “Hey, think about a happy memory or a positive memory, or sad memory, or an ordinary memory from your past and sometimes they’ll bring to mind a memory that would also constitute nostalgia. They can distinguish the two, and you can find distinctions when you have more surgically tell people to specific think of a nostalgic memory. It does something a little bit different than if you just say, “Hey, think about a happy or pleasant memory.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think one of the ways you find a lot of people describing it, it’s feeling both sad and happy about the memory.
Clay Routledge: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, so that’s a good point because if you say, “Just think of a happy memory or a positive memory,” a lot of times that will be somewhat superficially positive.
So you can imagine lots of things just bring positive memories. “Oh, I went to the movies,” or “I ate a piece of cake.” But what seems to distinguish nostalgia in part is this more what we call emotional ambiance, which is there’s this tinge of sadness or loss. And that’s part of what I think makes nostalgia memories special is they’re not just ordinary everyday happy events. Right? They might be little things that you enjoy every day, but nostalgia seems to be more of those momentous or meaningful memories. And often times people don’t really think about this. A lot of times these more meaningful memories have this tinge of negative affect or negative emotion in them because they’re so special. Became meaningful memories are often complex and because when we think about them where we’re aware of that, that sense of how these are rare kind of special events.
Brett McKay: Right, and then also I mean the word nostalgia, it comes from Greek, which meant homesickness. So your kind of feeling this longing for home, which could be the past in this case.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, definitely I mean there is this sense of something that you’re longing or that you’re longing for as opposed to just something that is just more kind of superficially transiently pleasurable.
Brett McKay: Right. And I think you talk too about the history of nostalgia, there was a time in sort of the history of psychology where nostalgia was seen as a sickness, like that’s not a good thing to have. Was it because they didn’t really fine tune nostalgia and they were just conflating it with some other just like a sadness. What was going on? Why did they think nostalgia was bad at some point in this history of psychology?
Clay Routledge: So there’s a couple of possibilities, I mean to start it’s a little bit difficult often to do these sort of historical analysis because we’re not there and we don’t know exactly. So we’re doing almost like a forensic sort of analysis of text and writing and what we think people were thinking at the time, but there seems to be a couple possibilities that you touched on one. And that is that there was just an oversimplification of this idea of home sickness and so what people were doing is that they were conflating these negative, emotional, and distressing feelings that people were having that might have actually … I’m sure we’ll touch on this later. It might have actually triggered or instigated nostalgia as a coping resource.
Conflating that with the actual nostalgia memory, which might actually have been the response to those negative states. So that’s one possibility is in modern science we would use words like the difference between correlation and causation for instance. Are these negative feelings correlated with nostalgia? And is that why we, they conflated the two?
In addition to that a second possibility is that over time we have started to change the definition of what nostalgia is and that we’ve started to ourselves distinguish it from homesickness. Now what I, even if that’s true, and that could be part of the picture, I would just note that doesn’t mean nostalgia is a new or recent phenomena. It just means that we have developed new language or we are approaching it conceptually. I mean I think there’s no reason to believe that nostalgia as we commonly think of it now is something that’s emerged in recent decades. As long as our species has been an animal that grapples with the awareness of time and concerns about meaning. I suspect we’ve always been nostalgic.
Brett McKay: So nostalgia is sort of a wistfulness of happy memories, meaningful memories. What is the content of nostalgic thoughts? Is it pretty much the same that you’re seeing things pop up over and over again in your research?
Clay Routledge: Yes, it is. So in fact there’s been some studies in recent years really looking cross culturally at different nations, and age groups, and different parts of the world suggesting that there is a common theme of nostalgia, or common characteristics that populate nostalgic memories, and they include a heavy emphasis on social bonds or relationships. So certainly you could have nostalgic memories that are more solitary that are you doing something completely by yourself, but that would be more atypical than a social memory that involves close others friends, families, romantic partners. So the sociality of nostalgia seems really, really big.
Also, we find that nostalgia often contains what people refer to as momentous life events. So you can be nostalgic for anything of course, even very, even things that other people might find trivial you might find momentous. But you do see these common cultural themes about rites of passage like graduation, kind of religious traditions, and getting married for instance, having children. You also see themes related to holidays or these kind of cultural rituals are big. And of course a lot of these things also implicate the social nature that I just touched on.
So momentous life events seem to be a big part of it, and also a self-focus and what I mean by that is nostalgic memories at least when we talk about personal nostalgia are seen through the lens of view as the protagonist, right? These are your memories, right? So you, the self plays a central role in them, which doesn’t take away from the social aspect. I mean people tend to see social versus self as being in opposition, but that’s not true at all. Because a lot of things we do in life of course involve us thinking about our primary role in them, but they still implicate relationships.
And finally I would say nostalgic memories are sort of populated by this what we call a redemptive sequence. You know events that have a redemptive sequence in so, where the negative and positive elements come in a little more is that a lot of times nostalgic memories involve some sort of hardship, or loss, or pain, or difficulty, or uncertainty that is subsequently, that you subsequently triumph over. And so there really kind of these redemptive stories, which again kind of distinguish them from other memories.
Brett McKay: So you said, you mentioned that this content for nostalgic thoughts are … there’s a lot of relationships and this self, but what happens? What’s going on when people are nostalgic for a period of time that they didn’t even exist? Right? Like people, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life and you’re like, “Ah, I wish I could go back to then, and live in fictional Bedford Falls when everything was great.” And it’s the same sort of nostalgic feeling that I have when I think about my own childhood. So what’s going on there when you’re nostalgic for an era that you didn’t even experience yourself?
Clay Routledge: So one thing to start with is that I think it’s important to distinguish a lot of what I’ve been talking about which we would call personal nostalgia from what you’re now referencing, which we would call historical nostalgia, and the two can have some overlap and we can get into that.
But a lot of the research we’ve done has been on these personal memories that are from your own life experiences. So there this other phenomenon from historical nostalgia, which I is exactly what you know, which is an affinity towards some aspects or periods of the past that may have been long before you were ever born. And I certainly there is something about that, that’s distinct, but I also think it sort of builds on the same psychological scaffolding as personal nostalgia.
Just for a quick example you can imagine like you said being nostalgic for certain movies or ideas that were long before you were born, but if you extract the themes out of that they might connect in meaningful ways to your own life experiences and the way you became introduced to those historical ideas might have important personal connections as well.
So I know that I have some nostalgia for older movies that I experienced for the first time with either older relatives or my father, and so there is still this connection to my own personal life experiences. But they were introduced to me, these older ideas were introduced to me by people that I, from my own life. And an interesting possibility is that these forms of historical nostalgia are part of what connect us culturally across time, and our ability to weave these into our own personal memories and personal life narratives might help be part of what connects us to older generations.
I think another good example if this seems a little abstract is, like my son who wasn’t born until 2001 has a lot of interests in movies from the 1980s, and so we’ve particularly kind of action, you know the action movie genre.
So I’ve shown him everything from Rambo, to Terminator, to Aliens, to Rocky, to the Rocky movies, and all these action movies, Predator, all these action movies from the 80’s which were way before he was born and he really, really likes them. And there are themes that are just enduring that a lot of teenage boys like violent action movies. But I have no doubt too that part of that will be a connection with me as he gets older, you know he’ll be thinking, “Well, I got to watch that stuff with my dad and that was really cool.” So I do think there is this blending between the historical and the personal, if that makes sense?
Brett McKay: No, it makes perfect sense. Because I often get nostalgic for the World War II era and that’s probably because both my grandfathers fought for World War II. And so as a kid they showed me their pictures from the war, so that was my connection to that era.
Clay Routledge: Yeah. Yeah. No, definitely. And also a lot of just kind of either fashion trends or certain ideas that you might like the peak time of those ideas might have been in times past before you were born. And so that can be part of it too, you just happen to have a particular hobby or a particular area of interest. Like say, you’re interested in muscle cars for whatever reason. You might say there was a period that was sort of the peak for that time, but my guess is a lot of times, certainly not always I’m sure. But my guess is a lot of times if you dug a little bit deeper, you would find a personal link. So maybe your dad had a muscle car and you just thought that was really cool like he was the greatest. Or like you said, he showed you pictures, your grandparents or somebody showed you pictures from when they were young. So I think a lot of times, even though we feel sort of disconnected personally from historical events. There is a real family or social connection somewhere beneath the surface.
Brett McKay: So you’ve done research and you found that nostalgia is something that’s not just unique to people just living in Westernized countries, it’s cross cultural. You also did research on sort of trying to figure out how we feel nostalgically at different times in our life. I’m curious are there certain points in our life where we feel more nostalgic or less nostalgic?
Clay Routledge: So this is a question that certainly needs a lot more data to be appropriately answered. We do have one data set that provides some suggestive hints.
Now, let me start by saying the differences between age groups aren’t large. So what we find is in general across age people are nostalgic. There are individual differences, which I’m sure we’ll talk about because there is a kind of personality trait related to nostalgia. But people of all ages seem to regularly engage in nostalgia. Now that being said, I was hinting at this potential, interesting small difference.
We have some preliminary evidence that nostalgia may be higher among young adults and some people in their 20’s for instance, and then kind of start to decrease slightly in middle age, and then begin to increase again as people get older. And one possibility, and I say this with caution because we don’t know for sure, one possibility is that this is somehow mapping onto kind of normal trends across the life, kind of life span trends. So what I mean by that is when you’re a young adult you have a lot of uncertainty. You’re trying to figure out what to do. You’re trying to … you potentially find a mate, become more of an adult. Be independent. And with that uncertainty might provoke a more longing for nostalgia as a way to kind of regulate these experiences. Now once you settle into middle age. And again this is just a simplification, people differ obviously. You might expect more of a period of stability, right? You have a job, you have a career. You’re doing your thing. You have a family. You’re just plugging away, and so you might need nostalgia less.
And then as you start to get a little bit older, you’re starting to have life transitions again. Either it’s retirement, or of course eventually people start to, you start to lose family members, and parents, and friends. There are other experiences in life as you get old in terms of declining health. So that’s just one possibility is that trends in nostalgia across age somehow follow trends, general lifespan trends and just what we would call discontinuity.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I can see that. Like in my own and this is antidotal, I’m throwing in some antidotal evidence into the mix here.
But I remember as a young adult, I’d get really like the Christmas spirit, right? It’s very nostalgic. Now as like I’m a 30-something dad of kids, I don’t feel that much at the holidays. I just got to get through this because there’s a whole lot to do.
Clay Routledge: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And I always try to like I’m gonna recapture that feeling somehow and I never can. So I guess I have to wait until I’m in my 60s or 70’s.
Clay Routledge: Well you know that’s a good antidote and I think there’s truth to that. But what I would also add is, and the reason I think these trends might be really, really, small is because of course anytime you just look broadly and say something as broad as across the life span within that is a whole host of different experiences that are competently diverse. And so just as you might say these are general cohort trends, you would also predict using that same reasoning that as any individual personally experiences distress or discontinuity or change in life. They might ratchet up their own nostalgia.
So for instance you can imagine being 40 and saying, “Hey, I’m actually a lot more nostalgic than maybe I would have been because I just got a divorce,” or, “I just lost a parent,” or something like that, and it’s triggered this compensatory effort to revisit meaningful past memories and to reflect on these things that give me some sort of sense of stability that I know who I am. So I think it’s definitely more surgical to focus on the individual level, then it is the broader cohort level but still that life span piece I think is interesting and there’s some, it might help us understand some general trends across age.
Brett McKay: So you’ve kind of been referencing this throughout while you were talking, explaining, giving your answers, but why do we experience nostalgia? Right, there’s reasons, we know, we kind of have an idea of why we experience happiness, why we experience sadness. So why do we have this feeling of sort of mixed sadness and happiness for the past? What do you thinks going on there? Based on your research?
Clay Routledge: Based on my research, well first I’ll say that nostalgia is compared to happiness and sadness it’s what we call a complex self relevance emotion. So it’s not just a simple positive or negative affect, it’s as we’ve discussed, it has this more ambivalent and complex signature, emotional signature. And what we’ve found, there seems to be at least two general classes of what we call triggers of nostalgia, or reasons that people become nostalgic.
One is just kind of simple, what we call sensory inputs, which and these are just the reminders of the past that you experience. So certain times of year, you might get that experience of sensation of, “Oh the weather’s changing and I’m starting …” and then, “Oh, that reminds me of when I was a kid, right?” Or, “I smell, there’s certain food, certain type of smell that reminds me of things of my childhood.” Or music would be a big sensory input, right? “I heard this song on the radio from when … and that was one of my favorite songs in high school and that brings me back.” So those are what we call very direct triggers of nostalgia, and that seems totally obvious.
What I find more fascinating is the second class of triggers, which we call psychological threats. And I think that’s more interesting because one, it’s less obvious, and two, it really starts to reveal nostalgia’s psychological functions. And so what we find is people are more likely to feel nostalgic in times in which they’re experiencing negative emotions, particularly emotions relevant to social issues and issues of meaning.
So when people feel lonely they become more nostalgic. And before I mentioned the correlation versus causation angle, and this is one of the things that we’ve tried to address is to distinguish correlation from causation. So we’ve now done a number of experiments to, and demonstrated that it is in fact negative emotions that trigger nostalgia as opposed to nostalgia triggering negative emotions.
So when you induce sadness in the laboratory or you induce negative affect in the laboratory you find that people subsequently feel more nostalgic. When you induce a feeling of social exclusion, or ostracism, or loneliness in a laboratory you find that people subsequently feel more nostalgic. When you induce some sense of meaningless, or provoke people to question the meaningfulness of their life, they subsequently respond with a heightened sense of nostalgia. So the second class of triggers seems to be these negative psychological states that people are turning to nostalgia to as a way to regulate negative emotions and experiences.
Brett McKay: So on this psychological triggers is the nostalgia just serving as a bomb, right? Just helping you feel better because you’re sad or does it actually cause people to take action to improve their situation, right? So you feel lonely, okay I feel for nostalgic for the time in high school when I had friends and everything was great. That can just, you could just settle there like I feel better you don’t do anything about it. Or does nostalgia actually, “Okay, let me do something now so I can have friends now.”
Clay Routledge: That’s actually been one of the most surprising and interesting developments in the research I think, because originally to be honest, I thought it was the former that nostalgia just kind of made you feel good. So and that has value in itself, right? So you feel you’re experiencing loneliness or a feeling of rejection or meaninglyness so you kind of retreat to these memories in the past that make you feel good. And just, that might be beneficial because if you feel good, then there might be, then there might be something else that comes into play that your sort of more motivated to pursue just as a function of getting a mood boost. And that was kind of the original thinking is nostalgia just restores these positive feelings or reduces these negative feelings.
But then what we found more recently and I think is very fascinating is that nostalgia didn’t just make people feel good, it actually mobilizes them or motivates them. And so it’s kind of changed my thinking on nostalgia because I used to see nostalgia as this very past focused experience right? After all, you’re thinking about the past so it seems like you’re retreating backwards into the past to feel better about the present.
But I think a better description based on some of our more recent research is nostalgia has you pulling the past to the present, not you retreating to the past. Like you’re pulling the past to the present as a way to energize or mobilize yourself.
So now we’ve now published a number of studies showing that when people feel nostalgic they actually indicate and behaviorally demonstrate a greater interest in meeting new people, of trying new things, of being more helpful to others, feeling more energetic, feeling more youthful. And so it does seem to be the case that nostalgia isn’t just a way to sort of kind of restore your feelings. It does seem to have motivational power.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier this idea of self-continuity. What is that first? And then how does nostalgia help with that?
Clay Routledge: So self-continuity is the sense that even though I of course change over time, right? I have different life experiences and I grow and develop that. I have some sense that I’m … I have a some stable sense itself at some deeper level, I’m the same person I’ve always been. As opposed to I don’t have any stable sense of self and I’m all over the place. There seems to be some positive psychological benefits to having this sort of sense of stability of self across time, a kind of connection to self across time.
And so the way nostalgia boosts this self-continuity is it seems to be a way that people can bring to mind these experiences of life and weave them into a meaningful personal self story or self narrative that helps them feel like they have some authentic or enduring sense of self, regardless of what happens or regardless of what happens to them in life.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And, I thought a really interesting section, this is what kick-started your entire research about nostalgia, is nostalgia in sort of existential meaning, right?
So what is it about feeling that existential angst, right? Like my life is meaningless that makes people nostalgic. And what causes people to some people to be nostalgic while others they go into the void. They look into the abyss. And they never come back. And so what’s the difference between those two types of people?
Clay Routledge: Yeah, that second question is really interesting. So first all I’ll say life is full of experiences that kind of challenge our sense of meaning. I mean, we all experience loss and suffering and the world feels unfair, and ultimately regardless of all the things we do to navigate life, even a best case scenario, we know that ultimately we’re going to get older, frailer, weaker and everyone we know is going to die and so are we. And so at the general level nostalgia seems to be a way that people can kind of build the storehouse of meaning, the warehouse of meaning, or bank of meaning.
And when people are experiencing these states or these life events that sort of question the meaningfulness or cause them to think about the potential meaninglessness of their existence. They can withdraw from the bank these meaningful memories and be like, “Oh yeah but I’ve had these events in life and so I know I’ve despite what’s going on now and despite what’s gonna happen to me, I’ve had good experiences. I’ve had my meaning.”
And so that seems to be, that seems to be important not just for allowing people to take some perspective of what’s meaningful in their life, but also in touching upon a previous point about motivation, it seems to be kind of an experience that instigates kind of further efforts for meaning. And what I mean by that is you can imagine say, “Well life feels meaningless right now,” and that challenges your sense of confidence right? And then you think back nostalgically and you’re like, “Yeah, but I’ve had all these successes and great experiences in my life that made me feel meaningful. And if I had them back then, even though I’m going through a hard time right now, maybe I can have them again.” So nostalgia seems to boost your existential confidence to that you can … what you might be going though right now is tough but there’s going to be future opportunities for meaning.
You know sometimes we refer to this as anticipatory nostalgia, which is a lot of times we plan, we have goals and ideas that we’re hoping for in the future because we know we had meaningful versions of them in the past. I think vacations is a very good example. So you might be, there might be things on your bucket list that you really, really want to do, right? You want to do them in part because you think they’ll be meaningful. Like, “Oh I’ve always wanted to go to Yellowstone or to Alaska,” or whatever it is that you want to do. But part of the reason you think that might be meaningful is because at some level you can, you have memories from your past that you had, you might not have done those exact same things but you remember, “Hey, do you remember when my parents took us here and that was really awesome, and that was really special. And now I want to recreate that or make a new version of that.” And so I think that’s how nostalgia helps us deal with the existential meaninglessness issue.
Brett McKay: That’s like why I stress myself out every Christmas because I’m I’m like, “I’m creating memories here people.”
Clay Routledge: Yeah. That is but you’re touching on an important, I think an important issue that we need to think about which is you can overdo it right? Or you can fixate too much on the importance of something that robs you of just living and enjoying the more experiential component of it.
So I do think there are some, you know it’s not just the case that this is always positive, right? We have to think about that.
Brett McKay: That’s the message of Christmas vacation with … in any case. Try too hard. So what causes some people to go to nostalgia as a way to, as a reservoir for this existential void, while others don’t do that and they might go to a really, really bad place.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, so I think there’s a few possibilities. One is we know that there, that nostalgia does have trait like characteristics and what I mean about that is just like some people are more neurotic than others. And some people are more extroverted than others. Some people are more nostalgic than others. So there is just kind of a stable personality characteristic of nostalgia that people vary on. Like all of us can experience nostalgia and have some understanding of it. But some of us are more nostalgic than others. And so that seems to be one dimension, which is some people just … And it’s not to say that people who aren’t nostalgic are gonna just retreat to the void and embrace the void.
But it might indicate that nostalgia’s not, is not as likely as a strategy for them when they’re grappling with meaning. They might turn to the things for meaning, but maybe not as much nostalgia, so, that’s one part of it. Another part of it is I think just individual differences and people’s personal comfort with the void, so to speak. So there does seem … one of the other areas of research I’m involved in right now is looking at individual differences and the need for meaning. Now at some level just like the need to belong or our social needs, everyone has some level of need for meaning. Everyone needs to feel important and that their life has some kind of value or purpose at some level.
But people also seem to differ on this. Some people are really, really high in this need. Some of the research that, some of the recent research we’ve done on this suggest for instance that people that are high on need for meaning tend to be more religious and hold more supernatural beliefs, for example. And, so one possibility is that there are just some people that are more comfortable with the idea that there is no ultimate meaning or there is no true meaning beyond the meaning that I might make. So some people might just be more comfortable or might find be, find it less distressing to look into the void.
Now the third thing, the third and final thing I’d note, which you touched on a little on to is, that’s distinct from meaningless that might be bad for people’s mental health as you kind of hinted at because some people might stare at the void and be like, “Hey, my life is meaningless or whatever, there’s still a new Star Wars movie coming out. I still like Starbucks and … ” and some people just might be a little bit more comfortable with that right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Clay Routledge: But I think the problem is a lot of people aren’t. And if they don’t have, you know I’d say the majority of people were. In fact, I think it’s a very small percentage of the population that’s probably fully able to embrace without any real psychological distress the total potential and insignificance of their existence.
So for everyone else who isn’t like that who wants meaning, if not nostalgia, if not something else. I mean there are … people do experience one of the predictors of depression is a lack of meaning. One of the predictors of suicide is a lack of meaning. One of the predictors of addiction and other forms of risky and problematic behavior is the feeling that life is meaningless.
So there does seem to be this pathological component of a lack of meaning. And I don’t know, I don’t know what the answer is for those people because we largely haven’t studied nostalgia from that kind of more clinical perspective. We studied it more as a normal life experience. And that actually touches on an important issue that I like to bring up a lot and I think we need to do a better job of being transparent about in psychology, which is it’s a lot easier to identify and study phenomena or people or experiences as they naturally exist. And then to kind of experimentally move that around a little bit just to understand the phenomena like nostalgia. It’s a lot harder to develop interventions that can dramatically change people if that makes sense.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That makes sense. You also highlight research that nostalgia can actually have a physiological response. I’ve seen this research before where they’ll go to a nursing home, and they’ll make the nursing home pretty much look like how it looked when the residents were in their prime, in their 20’s. And instead of shuffling the old people like they get a little pep in their step. So I mean that’s another benefit. But I’m curious in your research have you found any, I mean is there a dark side to nostalgia? We’ve been talking about the benefits are there any downsides to experiencing nostalgia?
Clay Routledge: I think there is centrally are possible downsides. One would be an overuse of nostalgia. Now we don’t really, we haven’t really figured this out in terms of research. But it seems to be pretty obvious at some level that almost anything that’s good for you or can be bad for you. Or almost anything that’s good for you can be bad for you, right? You know you use the parallel example of exercise. Like everyone wants to say, “Hey, exercise is good for you.” But we know that some people overexercise or compulsively exercise. And so I’d say similarly if you’re so fixated on nostalgia that it’s preventing you in living in the present, or engaging in other future oriented opportunities or experiences than that would be a problem.
In addition to that, there is some recent research on what we would call group or collective , which seems to have some positive and negative benefits.
And what I mean by that is you can imagine nostalgia for a group your part of. All right, you can say, “Hey I have nostalgia for being an American. Or nostalgia for being when I was in college,” or something like that. And that has many benefits because group level nostalgia makes you feel connected and part of something bigger than yourself, right? It gives you some commitment to your in-group.
But the problem of course is that it also runs the risk of making you less focused or less open to out-groups or to people that aren’t part of that group. And so I think one of the things that warrants further investigation is the extent to which nostalgia can while increasing some kind of group harmony perhaps, a collective nostalgia could also contribute to inter-group conflict. And there just isn’t a lot of … like I said the research on the benefits of group nostalgia but there isn’t really much research on the potential consequences.
Brett McKay: So as I was reading your book, I was thinking okay there’s a lot of great benefits in nostalgia. I want some more nostalgia in my life. Have you all found, are there ways you can … I mean you’ve been able to induce nostalgia in the lab by making people feel sad. That’s so funny that’s what you guys do.
We’re gonna make you feel lonely and excluded and sad so we can test this thing. But are there, I mean you mentioned the sort of direct triggers, right? Music, pictures etc. Are there ones that you find that without fail typically induce some sort of nostalgic feeling in people.?
Clay Routledge: Music seems to be really big. It seems … and there might be different reasons why. Just from an experimental or laboratory point of view, music might be a really good induction just because just cause people like it and it’s engaging. I mean, a lot of times when you do these studies in the lab you’re bringing people in and it’s not the most interesting thing for them to do.
But you give them a chance to listen to music that makes them nostalgic or often times to make sure we have good controls in our control conditions, we also have them listen to music that they really, really like or enjoy. So it’s equally engaging, but it’s music that they’ve only recently heard and so that way it’s not associated with the past for them. But that seems to be powerful. So that, just from the engagement part of it, but even beyond the laboratory I would propose that music is a particularly powerful source of nostalgia because it seems to be that all of us have, or many of us have almost like a soundtrack to our lives. Right?
We can think about the times from our youth in particular where there are certain bands we’ve liked. In fact there’s some research on this that people tend to favor products, consumer products, whether it’s music or movies that came, or even fashion that came from their youth.
And that seems to be the time in which you really start to develop these … because you start to become an independent person, right? That’s the time when you’re … when you’re an adolescent and teen and young adult that’s when your identity’s really forming and you’re distinguishing yourself from just being some kid in your family.
You’re becoming kind of an autonomous person. And there’s music associate with that, right? And so for me it would be the early 1990’s, right? That’s when I was in high school and college so I have a particular … I like new music of course, but I have a particular affinity towards music from the 90’s.
Brett McKay: Who were your favorite bands from the 90’s?
Clay Routledge: Man, you wouldn’t believe it because this is just an audio show so you can’t even see it, but I’m wearing a Nine Inch Nails shirt as we speak. I was a big Nine Inch Nails fan. I was a big I guess what they call back then Grunge and alternative music so Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice, I was a big Alice in Chains fan. All those, all those sorts of bands, kind of rock alternative bands. You know I actually liked some of … and I still like kind of punk music, but that was that kind of hit it’s prime before, a little bit before my time.
But when I was in high school, when I had a little bit of cash and could buy CDs and develop my own music taste, it was that Grunge alternate sort of moment.
Brett McKay: That’s funny. For me it was I listened to Ska and Punk. The thing is though I don’t enjoy listening to that music now as a 30 year old. I’m just like “No, I can’t do it.” I’ve tried it. I’m like, “I want to feel nostalgic. I want to put in some Less than Jake or some Reel Big Fish.” I’m like, “Okay, No I can only do one song.” Yeah, it’s so weird
Clay Routledge: So what do you, what’s your … what do you listen to just more contemporary stuff?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean the contemporary stuff. I listen to, I like Frank, I like the pop standard, I like Frank Sinatra. I’ve always liked Swing Music, sort of jazz from the 30’s and 40’s, that’s been sort of consistent from when I was a kid until today. I still like that. But then today I do enjoy just poppy, poppy pop music, pop rock music.
Clay Routledge: So you really are historic when you say you have historical nostalgia.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Clay Routledge: You really do.
Brett McKay: It’s really weird. I mean, I don’t know why. I think my mom might have had a lot to do with it. She was, she loved watching old movies and of course I had to watch old movies too. So it’s probably because I’m nostalgic for that stuff because that’s what I grew up with. It’s not because-
Clay Routledge: Yeah.
Brett McKay: … I did experience directly in an indirect way if that makes sense.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, no, I think that … and I think that is an area of research that I haven’t fully jumped into, but I think that’s a really, really cool area. I’ve talked about this with some of my graduate students actually I’m trying to figure out the historical continuity of nostalgia by trying to figure out a way to identify, as some of our tastes and preferences and our nostalgia for them are linked to things that were passed down to us from … so if your parents listened to the Beetles or the Rolling Stones for instance, like did that … how did that influence your tastes?
And what’s the function of that? I mean we’re talking about music, but you can imagine this is all sorts of cultural context like you can imagine saying in cooking for instance, we hear people saying, “This is my grandma’s recipe. Right?”
And so I think that often times if you watch cooking shows or cooking documentaries, which my wife always makes me watch these cooling documentaries on Netflix.
You’ll see these famous chefs and they’ll often say, “Yeah when I was growing up my grandma made this,” or, “My mom made this.” And they might have a new version of it but there is that core of it.
And I think that’s actually an important part of nostalgia that we don’t think about in terms of entertainment, and consumer products, and trends and things like that.
A lot of times nostalgia works the best it seems or it’s the most creative when people aren’t just perfectly trying to replicate something from the past, but are able to extract its core themes, and then do something new. Take a new spin to it. And this happens all the time in music, you identity elements that are influenced by the past but then they go in a new direction and I think that’s where you can really see this is in the movies. A lot of times in movies the difference between nostalgia of movie that just is trying to bank on nostalgia in the most superficial way is often in times totally criticized and panned and people hate it because they loved the original so much. And they just see it as a total … people just trying to cash in on nostalgia. The movies that seem to really to be successful and pay tribute to the past are the ones that pull the themes out of it that are important, and that, and honor the past but then do something totally new or move in a new direction.
Brett McKay: Right. I feel like the Western genre does that really well.
Clay Routledge: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: A lot of the good modern westerns are still really good. They hold up to the other ones. I think about my kids are probably going to be nostalgic for The Killers, because that’s pretty much what we listen to.
Clay Routledge: Oh, yeah, The Killers are great.
Brett McKay: I love The Killers. And they’re actually doing some nostalgia like you hear some like … you’re listening like that’s a little bit of Bruce Springsteen 19 you know, 80’s right? So it’s, they’re doing the same thing.
Well I mean there’s so much more we could talk about where can people learn more about your work, not just on nostalgia but also just the psychology of being animals that have to grapple with temporal existence.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, so if you, I have a website it’s just Clay Routledge dot com, so it’s pretty simple. And, I have descriptions and links to a lot of my research and also links to … I’ve done writing for a number of different outlets ranging from Scientific America to New York Times to Wall Street journal. You can see all that on my website. And I wrote a Ted Ed lesson so if you want something that’s like five or six minutes and you like cartoons, there’s a little Ted Ed video. I think it’s linked on my webisode, so I think that’s probably the best place to find me. I’m also on Twitter. I don’t necessarily tweet about nostalgia per se but a lot of times about the areas of research and issues I’m interested it.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Clay Routledge, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Clay Routledge: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure for me as well.
Brett McKay: My guest was Clay Routledge. He’s a psychology professor at North Dakota State University, and the author of the book, “Nostalgia.” It’s available on Amazon dot com. You can also find out more information about his work at Clay Routledge dot com. Also, check out our show notes at A O M dot I S slash nostalgia where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at Art of Manliness dot com. If you’ve enjoy the show and you’ve got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, that helps out a lot.
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