Nostalgia - More bitter than sweet

Are nostalgic people rather sad than happy after all?

Diploma Thesis, 2010

85 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Vanessa Köneke (Author)


Table Of Contents


Theoretical and Empirical Background
From homesickness to „The 80s show“ – The history of nostalgia
Bitter or sweet? Proposed negative and positive correlates of nostalgia
How to measure nostalgia as a character trait?
The older the more nostalgic? Age, gender and education
Neurotic & introverted or creative & convivial? What are nostalgic people like?

The current study

Summary of results
Asset or curse? Why differentiations might be necessary to answer this question



“Nostalgia can be a real inspirational stimulant, and also one of the deadliest of all poisons (…It) is a confusing emotion, full of paradoxes."

Elihu S. Howland, 1962, S. 198f

It is almost half a century ago that the American psychiatrists Elihu Howland made this statement about nostalgia. However not much has changed. The phenomenon of nostalgia is still a puzzling one (Boym, 2001; Wilson, 2005). 350 years after the term nostalgia was used for the first time we still do not know whether it is a “stimulant” or a “poison”. While in the beginning nostalgia was classified as a disease it has recently become associated with a more positive connotation of pleasure and is regarded to be a coping mechanism (e.g. Zhou et al, 2008; Hertz, 1990). But an overall picture integrating all potential positive and negative aspects of nostalgia is still lacking (Wilson, 2005).

And there are yet a great many more of ambiguous and disputed aspects: First, while some authors argue nostalgia can only be felt for things personally experienced (Davis, 1979), others hold that somebody can also long for a time before he or she was born (e.g. Stern, 1992a, Peters, 1985; Havlena & Holak, 1996; Baker & Kennedy, 1994). Second, when referring the term nostalgia to people’s own life it is not yet clear whether it is childhood (Kleiner, 1970; Dickinson & Erben, 2004; McGriff, 1997) or rather late adolescence and early adulthood (Davis, 1979; Holbrook & Schindler, 1989; Schuman & Scott, 1989 ) people are nostalgic for. Third, there is some disagreement on the question whether nostalgia is rather caused by an admiration of the past or by dissatisfaction with the present or by a fear about the future (cf. Batcho, 1998). Fourth, it is not yet clear whether nostalgia varies with age, gender or education, and finally it is rather unclear which personality dimensions are associated with high or low degrees of nostalgia.

So what is nostalgia in the end about? Which feelings and thoughts are conjoined with it? What are its causes and consequences? How do nostalgic people perceive their life? Do they suffer from their nostalgic feelings or do they rejoice them? And how does „the typical“ nostalgic person look like?

Although not all questions can ultimately be answered here, this thesis will shed some more light on the phenomenon of nostalgia. The results of an correlational study will show some evidence which contradicts the present appreciation of nostalgia as being an asset and redirects it to the roots of nostalgia as an indicator for sadness and depression: nostalgia seems to be a double-edged sword, which might rather hurt than heal.

The theoretical part of this paper is structured as followed. First, history and meaning of the term nostalgia are outlined briefly. Then different theories and empirical studies concerning the question whether nostalgia is rather correlated with negative or with positive features like high or low life satisfaction are reviewed (this will be done in detail). Simultaneously it will be looked at the question whether nostalgia is rather a yearning for the past, an escape from the present or a fear of the future. Then, instruments to measure nostalgia as a personality trait or as a stable attitude will be discussed. This will be followed by a discussion of so far identified correlations of nostalgia with age, gender and education, respectively. Finally, so far assumed personality characteristics of high nostalgic people will be reviewed, whereby one focus will be set on the issue whether nostalgia is accompanied by pessimism and a perception of a steady decline in terms of “Things were better then than now”.

Theoretical and Empirical Background

From homesickness to „The 80s show“ – The history of nostalgia

Today nostalgia seems to be ubiquitous: various tv-shows invite to a time travel (e.g. in Germany „Die Ostalgie-Show“ and „Die 80er Show“). Musicals reanimate the music of the 1950s, 60s, 70s or 1980s (e.g. „Mamma Mia“ and „Hairspray“; c.f. Rugg, 2002). People surge to the cinema for movies playing in the past like „Titanic“ or „Good bye, Lenin“ (c.f. Cook, 2005; Dika, 2003; Higson, 1996; Radstone, 2010a; Rosenthal, 1981; Wollen, 1991). And marketing and advertisement experts use nostalgia to sell their goods (Fowler, 1992; Havlena, & Holak, 1991; Holbrook & Schindler, 1991; Stern, 1992; Muehling & Sprott, 2004; Unger et al., 1991).

However what we think when hearing the term nostalgia differs substantially from its initial meaning. The term nostalgia stems from the words „nostos“ meaning to return, and „algos“ meaning pain. Thus, nostalgia has primarily been an expression for the pain somebody feels when he or she is away from home and cannot return, a feeling we call „homesickness“ today.

The term nostalgia was first used in 1688 by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer. Among its symptoms Hofer listed sadness, anxiety, anorexia, insomnia, palpation of the heart, weakness and diminished senses. He regarded nostalgia to be a physical disease due to dysfunctions of the brain. Others shortly after him attributed nostalgia to physical processes, as well, but the supposed causes changed with the spirit of time. In the 18th century nostalgia was traced back to environmental conditions like high air pressure (Scheuchzer, 1705,1731). From the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th century nostalgia was thought of to be rather a psychosomatically disease caused by inner conflicts (Blumenbach, 1783). During the beginning and middle of the 20th century psychoanalytic explanations prevailed associating nostalgia with a trauma in childhood and the wish to return to the mother’s womb (Fodor, 1950; Sterba, 1940; Neuman, 1949/1971; Kleiner, 1970, Kaplan, 1987; Kulish, 1989; Jackson, 1986; Peters, 1985, c.f. Daniels, 1985).

However, in contrary to controversies on the causes of nostalgia there was firm agreement from the first mention of nostalgia until the middle of the 20th century to classify nostalgia as a disease. Since the time that psychological rather than physical explanations became more common nostalgia was especially associated with depression (Rosen, 1975; McCann, 1941; Castelnuovo-Tedesco, 1980; Frost, 1938; Jackson, 1987).

But in the 1970s the picture of nostalgia totally changed. In fact it did in several ways. It was then that nostalgia turned from a yearning for a place to a yearning for a time, namely for the past. Thus, nostalgia began to be distinguished from homesickness (Davis, 1979; Kleiner, 1979; Werman, 1977; c.f. van Tilburg et al., 1996). Second, while nostalgia was formerly looked at from the perspective of the individual person in the 1970s nostalgia became as well a sociological phenomenon. Sociologists connected nostalgia with a perception of decline in mankind - especially a decline in solidarity and morality (Steiner, 2004; Turner; 1987; Shaw & Chase, 1989; c.f. Putnam, 2000; Lane, 2000) - and with a yearning for nature, authenticity and harmony (Peters, 1985, Davies, 2010; Fujiwaka, 1989; Kleiner, 1970; Newton, 2006; c.f. Abramson & Inglehart, 1995). This new social perspective led furthermore to a new perspective on nostalgia: a collective nostalgia (Baker & Kennedy, 1994; Davis, 1979; cf. Halbwachs, 1992), whereby a group of people is nostalgic for the same things.

While nostalgia in its equation with homesickness had formerly been somewhat restricted to soldiers, first-year students, navy men and immigrants, now the meaning of nostalgia changed to be a feeling every person can experience. And by doing so – and this is probably the most interesting change – nostalgia was not longer regarded to be a disease. Instead of causing sadness nostalgia was now considered to cause pleasure and a warm feeling (Davis, 1979). It was even considered to be a mechanism to cope with difficulties in life – especially with transition between life stages or roles (Davis, 1979, see below). To sum up: From being pathological nostalgia became normal (Austin, 2007; Nikelly, 2004) (For a more detailed overview over nostalgias history see e.g. Starobisnki, 1985; Martin, 1954)

Bitter or sweet? Proposed negative and positive correlates of nostalgia

Nostalgia consists of an interplay of both, affective and cognitive elements (Mills & Coleman, 1994; Werman, 1977; Baumgartner, 1992; Cavanaugh 1989), but is mainly considered to be an emotion (Batcho, 1998; Frijda, 1986; Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1989; Kemper, 1987; Ortony, Clore, & Collins., 1988; Sedikides, Wildschut & Baden,et al., 2004). It is also its strong emotional tone, which distinguishes nostalgia from reminiscence, recollection and remembrance (Davis, 1977; Wildschut et al, 2006; Sedikides et al, 2004). However, in contrast to for example grief, hunger or fear nostalgia is broadly considered to be a secondary or complex emotion, which requires a pre-set of previously acquired cultural norms (Johnson-Laird & Oalty, 1989; Kemper, 1987; Dickinson & Erben, 2006) to interpret the tone of the feeling.

Interpreting nostalgia’s tone has in fact never been simple. Although nostalgia was first considered to be a saddening disease while it is now rather considered to give pleasure, almost all professionals who have been dealing with nostalgia have acknowledged that nostalgia contains simultaneously negative and positive emotions. Indeed nostalgia is mostly referred to as a bittersweet emotion (Barrett et al, 2010; Cavanaugh, 1989; Fujiwaka, 1989; Kleiner, 1970; Holak & Havlena, 1992, Johnson-Laird & Oatly, 1989; Ross, 1991; Werman, 1977; c.f. Larsen et al., 2001), a bipolar emotion which combines joy with sadness (Werman, 1977), pain with sweetness (Howland, 1962) and pleasure with regret (Dickinson & Erben, 2006). The bittersweet nature of nostalgia is mostly either attributed to experiencing simultaneously current regret and remembered pleasure (Kleiner, 1970; Dickinson & Erben, 2006; Harper, 1996) or to the dilemma of simultaneously wanting to escape into the past and the necessity to accept the present (Hertz, 1990; Dickinson & Erben, 2006; Radstone, 2010b; Sohn, 1983).

Although there is overwhelming consensus that nostalgia is a bittersweet feeling there is some discussion, whether the sad or rather the joyful parts prevail. While some authors – especially the psychoanalytic ones – have inferred from case stories that the core of nostalgia is sadness, distress and disappointment (Fodor, 1950; Best & Nelson, 1985; Peters, 1985; Ortony, Clore & Collins, 1988) others emphasize nostalgia’s positive emotional aspects (Kaplan, 1987; Batcho, 1995).

Studies analysing the content of nostalgic memories point rather to the latter view. For example Holak and Havlena (1998) asked their participants to write down nostalgic episodes and concluded from these anecdotes that although nostalgia comprises some significant negative components as desire and sadness, it basically consists of positive emotions such as warmth, joy, affection and gratitude (for similar results see Wildschut et al, 2006). Furthermore administering the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Wiese, Vaidya, & Tellegen, 1988) in the study of Wildschut et al. (2006) showed that after having written about a nostalgic event participants reported more positive than negative affect. And finally a study of emotions concerning music (Barrett et al, 2010) revealed that the ratio of positive to negative emotions during nostalgic experiences while listening to music is four to one. This was a much more positive ratio as compared with non-nostalgic experiences. However, in this study not only positive emotions increased, but also negative emotions, which points to a general high emotional-loading of nostalgic experiences.

Furthermore, positive emotions in general might even be evoked when the nostalgically remembered event is rather a negative one as negative events may also contain a positive side. As an example, one might experience a difficult situation, but then is helped by a good friend (Sedikides et al., 2006; Dickinson & Erben, 2006; Davis, 1979).

As mentioned above nostalgia is an interplay of emotion and cognition. Its experience can affect the whole person: physical sensations, mood, emotions, thoughts and memories (Peters, 1985). Therefore, the question arises whether nostalgia with all its components is generally rather an asset or a curse.

In the childhood of nostalgia’s scientific history this question seemed to be an easy one as nostalgia was clearly regarded to be a disease. Especially psychoanalysts like Fodor (1950) mostly placed nostalgia in a bad light – and they continued to do so, when the meaning of nostalgia changed from a spatial to a temporal concept (e.g. Kleiner, 1970; Kulish, 1989). From a psychoanalytic point of view nostalgia is dysfunctional and not wanted by the people suffering from it (Kleiner, 1970). Nostalgia is thought to be an excessive emotional fixation on the past (McCann 1941), a tendency to regress and a yearning for one’s mother’s breast (Sterba, 1940; Fodor, 1950) and therefore an impediment for personal growth (Shabad, 1989; cf. Batcho et al., 2008).

From this point of view nostalgia is an escape from the present due to being dissatisfied with it (c.f. Lowenthal, 1975). However, Batcho (1995, 1998) conducted some studies by asking how participants rate the world as it is now, as it would be 20 years in the future, and as it was when they were younger showing that participants who had a pronounced nostalgic personality evaluated the past more favourable than participants who were rather not nostalgic, but that they did not differ in the evaluation of present nor future. Therefore, Batcho concluded that nostalgia is rather caused by an admiration of the past than by having problems to deal with the present (c.f. Kaplan, 1988).

The question whether the stimuli of nostalgia are located in the present, the past or even in the future (see below) go often hand in hand with the question of nostalgia being rather adaptive or maladaptive as people might either just pull some pleasure and power of thinking of the past, or they may want to regress from the present and the future and therefore stand in their own light regarding self-growth and enjoyment of the present. While psychoanalysts support the latter view, Batcho and Kaplan (1987) support the former. However Hirsch (1992) could show that at least regarding nostalgia evoked by smells from childhood the level of nostalgia was independent of how favourable a childhood was remembered. Furthermore, pleasurable nostalgic memories of holocaust-survivors (Hertz, 1990) and formerly repressed Black Americans (Wilson, 1999) might set some doubt on the suggestion that nostalgia is first of all evoked by a positive past (c.f. Glazer & Key, 1996).

Referring to potential other negative aspects of nostalgia, Dickinson and Erben (2006) concluded from case studies that nostalgia might cause a narcissistic reaction, which means the nostalgic people feels strongly attracted to special other persons or things, but the love given to these objects actually aims at giving love to oneself, as the nostalgic person misses early childhood, when one’s mother’s love was given exclusively to oneself. Concerning nostalgia in its meaning of homesickness Platt and Taylor (1967) have shown that highly nostalgic people tend to have lower self-esteem. Furthermore nostalgia seems to be negatively correlated with trust (Fetchenhauer & Köneke, unpublished data) and might therefore complicate dealing with other people and waste energy because of their heightened scepticism (Fetchenhauer & Dunning, 2009). And finally, many studies have revealed a positive correlation between nostalgia and neuroticism (e.g. Barrett, 2010, see below), and as neuroticism is defined by often experiencing negative emotions as sadness, fear, guilt, and hostility (Costa & McCrae, 1980; Watson & Clark, 1992, Emmons & Diener, 1985, Tellegen, 1985; Headey & Wearing, 1992; c.f. Young & Martin, 1981) and sometimes even depression (Martin, 1985), nostalgic people are probably not the happiest ones. The assumption of nostalgia being accompanied by unhappiness was supported by Barrett et al. (2010) by conducting a study including the Affective Neurosciences Personality Scale (ANPS, Davis et al., 2003), which is a personality measurement studying the neuro-excitabilty of brain regions. The ANPS consists of the dimensions Play, Seek, Care, Fear, Anger, Sadness and the study revealed an impact of the Sadness dimension, which is activated by loss, separation distress, and breaking of social bonds, on nostalgia.

To summarize the negative point of view of nostalgia, nostalgia is regarded as a drawback and a maladaption (Beisser, 1987, Fisher, 1991; c.f. Batcho et al, 2008) as it is supposed to be related to sadness and low self-esteem and to prevent coping with the present.

However, there are as least as many authors regarding nostalgia as positive and adaptive as those regarding it as negative and maladaptive.

First, if in fact the sweet and positive parts of the nostalgic bittersweet emotion prevail, nostalgia might just give pleasure and increase happiness and life satisfaction (Mills & Coleman, 1990; Sedikides et al, 2008; Fujiwaka, 1989). Yet, in the already mentioned study of Batcho (1998) nostalgic participants were not happier than non-nostalgic participants. However, this result should not be stretched too far as it was achieved by a single item. But, similarly, Routledge et al. (2008) could not find a significant correlation between nostalgia and life-satisfaction as measured with the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener et al., 1985), either.

However it might still be, that nostalgia increases mood and satisfaction with life as being nostalgic might buffer the experience of being unhappy. If that were the case unhappy people might be even more unhappy if they do not resort to being nostalgic. This account was proposed in the study of Barrett et al (2010) that found an impact of neuro-excitability for sadness on a nostalgic character, which might mean that nostalgia does not cause sadness as psychoanalysts have proposed, but is in turn rather caused by sadness to act against it. Similarly temporary nostalgic feelings are found to be triggered by bad mood (Wildschut et al., 2006). So nostalgia might less be an pleasuring emotion, but rather a defensive emotion as its sometimes proposed function as a coping mechanism (Zhou et al., 2008) supposes. In deed this account is the basis for most of the positive features of nostalgia reviewed in the following.

Second, beside the proposed pleasure giving function of nostalgia from a even more functionalist view, which is in deed again connected to coping, many authors have stressed that nostalgia might bring continuity during changes of ones own life (e.g. Davis, 1979; Wilson, 1999; Batcho et al, 2008; Belk, 1990; Brown & Humphreys, 2002; Miligan, 2003; Nikelly, 2004; Wilson & Ross, 2003; c.f. Erikson, 1959) as well as during socially changing times (Brown, 2010; Tannock, 1995). By remembering what has been people are considered to get an idea of who they are and how they became what they are (c.f. Bergson, 1960, 1965; Haber; 2006; Hertz 1990; Mills & Coleman, 1994; Boardman, 2002).

Empirical evidence for this so-called discontinuity hypothesis is ambiguous. For example Best & Nelson (1985) could not confirm that participants were more nostalgic after having changed a job. In contrast Sedikides, Wildschut, Arndt and Routledge (2008) conducted a more direct test by asking participants how often they had experienced disrupting life events (e.g., death of a close family member, divorce) over the last two years and found a positive correlation between the number of disrupting life events and the frequency of feeling nostalgic. Furthermore inducing nostalgic feelings by letting participants think about a nostalgic event increased continuity between past and present individual selves. However this was limited to participants with high life satisfaction so that Sedikides and colleagues concluded that „nostalgia is an enabler of self continuity for happy but not unhappy persons“ (Sedikides, Wildschut, Gaertner, Routledge, & Arndt, 2008, p. 234).

Third, and related to the discontinuity hypothesis, it is argued that remembering the ideals of the past might provide guidance into the future (Lears, 1998) and restore meaning of life (Rosen, 1975; Mills & Coleman, 1994). In fact Routledge et al (2008) as well as Juhl et al. (2010) were able to show by experimental studies that especially when being existentially threatend by mortality salience (cf. Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) a trait-based proneness for nostalgia as well as induced state-based nostalgic feelings (Routledge et al, 2008 study 3) can buffer death-thoughts and help people maintain to perceive life as meaningful. However, the findings of a study of Bassett (2006) pointed in the opposite direction as here participants under mortality salience focussed more on the future than on the past: Given the opportunity to write either about something they looked forward to in the future or about something they missed from when they were younger (which was here defined as being nostalgic), participants rather decided to write about the future in the mortality salience condition as compared to two control conditions..

A common feature of the discontinuity hypothesis and the hypothesis of nostalgia restoring meaning of life is that from this point of view nostalgia might again be an escape from the present - as psychoanalysts have supposed - but also a fear of the future (Nawas & Platt, 1965; Davies, 2010). As mentioned above exactly studying people’s attitude towards past, present and future by directly asking how they rate the world now, in 20 years, and in the past Batcho (1998) obtained rather falsifying results as participants showed no differences regarding their evaluation of the present or the future due to nostalgia. However, a generalization of that study is difficult as only a student sample was used, people were not explicitly asked for their own life in the future but for how the world in general will be, and different ways to measure people’s attitudes towards the future found some evidence for nostalgia being positively related to a fear of the future, after all.

For example Platt and Taylor (1967) administered five different measures like asking “How will you be” and “what will you do” to account for participants’ “future time perspective” (c.f. Kastenbaum, 1961) and found at least with regard to some of the measures that highly nostalgic people had a shorter time horizon concerning the future. This was interpreted as lacking futurity and animating people to search for gratification in the past.

Furthermore Godbole, Hung and Shehryar (2006) confronted participants with fictious news, which contained either good or bad news about their personal economic outlook and showed that a bleak outlook for the future triggered nostalgia, but that a bright outlook did not. However the effect was restricted to the requirement of having a positive instead of a negative attitude towards the past (cf. Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999), which would – in line with Batcho (1998) – also propose that nostalgia is an admiration of the past instead of a fear of the future or a dissatisfaction with the present. So while most authors restrict nostalgia to be either rooted in the past or the present or the future and accounted these three approaches to be mutually exclusive (e.g. Batcho, 1998), the study of Godbole and colleagues shows that in fact all three approaches might go hand in hand.

As a fourth positive aspect of nostalgia it is argued to help people to deal with losses. For example, nostalgia is sometimes assumed to help accept the loss of one’s childhood (Kaplan, 1984) – a phenomenon Kulish (1989) has coined the “Peter-Pan-Syndrome” - or to accomplish the process of individualisation (Peters, 1985). Others regard nostalgia to be an adaptive strategy against losses of any kind (Howland, 1962). Yet, it can be doubted whether such a form of nostalgia is functional as ruminating on something not changeable has proven to be rather a barrier (Nolen-Hoeksema Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2008; Morrison & O'Connor, 2008; Cappeliez, O’Rourke and Chaudhury, 2005) and nostalgia for a loss might be quite similar to rumination, although the relationship between rumination and nostalgia is not studied well yet.

The fifth proposed positive feature of nostalgia is to connect to other people (Peters, 1985; Batcho, 1994, 1998; Cavanaugh, 1989; Mills & Coleman, 1994, Wilson 1999). Especially concerning collective nostalgia - being nostalgic for the common past of a group one belongs to (Davis, 1979) - it seems quite obvious that remembering the common past fosters connectedness, at least if the group still exists (Daniels, 1985). Davis (1979) even speaks of nostalgia shaping generations. But, also concerning personal nostalgia empirical evidence is quite strong as Holak and Havlena (1992) as well as Wildschut et al. (2006) have found in their analysis of written autobiographical narratives that people often get nostalgic for events they experienced together with other people. Furthermore Wildschut et al (2006) have shown that induced subjective loneliness can trigger nostalgic feelings and Zhou et al. (2008) demonstrated that a nostalgic personality may help dealing with loneliness by increasing the perception of getting social support (c.f. Bender et al., 1999). In line with the social-connection hypothesis Wildschut et al (2010) found that state-based nostalgic feelings foster subjectively perceived ability to provide emotional support to others. This view can be supported by Merchant and Ford’s (2008) theoretical conceptualizing of nostalgia’s positive impact on charity giving. However Wildschut and colleagues (2010) worked out that loneliness and nostalgia are only positively correlated if attachment-avoidance is low, but not when if it is high. The same was true for nostalgia and perceived ability to support others.

Yet, there are some more proposed adaptive features of nostalgia. For example nostalgia as a temporary detachment from the present and escape to an inner world might not be regressive in a negative way (Nikelly, 2004). Instead it might be an adaptive response to social stress (cf. Cochrane, 1983) and help to reload one’s psychic energy. Furthermore, in contrast to the position that nostalgic people have lower self-esteem – or just because of this position – nostalgia is sometimes regarded to augment self-esteem or prevent the loss of it (Kaplan, 1987; Brown & Humphreys, 2002). Wildschut et al. (2006, 2010) were able to increase self-esteem in a study by letting participants write about a nostalgic experience (c.f. Vees et al., 2008). However Routledge et al (2008) did not find any correlation between self-esteem and nostalgia as a stable character trait, which might again point to nostalgia being an effective coping mechanism, which does not enhance self-esteem (as well as life-satisfaction), but holds it at an adequate level.

However, there are some proposed positive correlates of nostalgia that can be regarded to be more than a defence strategy. For example, nostalgia is sometimes thought to foster inspiration and creativity (Stephan et al, 2008). Although this argument has not been empirically supported yet, it seems plausible, given the ubiquity of nostalgic themes in arts and literature (c.f. Goodman, 2008; O´Sullivan, 2010; Abbott, 2010). In line with this thought nostalgia is sometimes regarded to be not to inhibit personal growth (see above), but a growth-promoting experience (Nikelly, 2004). However, this feature is only rarely mentioned by people themselves when they are asked for the benefits of nostalgia (Wildschut et al., 2006)

To sum up the positive view of nostalgia, nostalgia may be an adaptive coping mechanism that may help deal with bad mood, loneliness and interrupting life events and booster meaning of life and creativity.

The current study aims to shed some more light on the question, whether the adaptive or the maladaptive features of nostalgia prevail.

How to measure nostalgia as a character trait?

Nostalgia can be regarded as well as a state as a trait variable (Barrett et al, 2010; Batcho, 1995, cf. Eysenck, 1983). Therefore some of the above-mentioned studies dealt with experimentally inducing state-based nostalgic feelings, while others administered instruments to measure nostalgia as a character trait.

Indeed there are several different instruments to measure trait-based nostalgia proneness. But although they all have some advantages, they also have some disadvantages. And above all, they probably not measure exactly the same (c.f. Batcho, 1998, 2007, 2008).

As roughly mentioned above one can distinguish between nostalgia for one’s own life - called „personal“ (Stern, 1992), „real“ (Baker & Kennedy, 1994) or „true“ (Davis, 1979) nostalgia – and nostalgia for a time before one had been born - called „historical“ (Stern, 1992), „simulated“ (Baker & Kennedy, 1994), „vicarious“ (Goulding, 2001) or „displaced“ (Vanderbild, 1994) nostalgia. This distinction becomes also obvious when facing different measures of nostalgia proneness.

For example Batcho (1995) developed an inventory to measure trait based nostalgia which clearly aims at personal nostalgia as participants are asked to indicate how much they miss 20 different items from the time when they had been younger. Items of the so called Batcho Nostalgia Inventory (BNI) range from concrete issues as tv-shows and family to abstract categories as “The way society was” or “Not knowing bad and evil things”. The advantage of this scale is its clear reference to personal nostalgia and that participants do not need much cognitive effort to fill out its items. However, the disadvantage is that many items focus on childhood (especially toys, school, holidays). This restricts the definition of nostalgia, although it is not yet clear if it is really childhood (Kleiner, 1970; Dickinson & Erben, 2004; McGriff, 1997) or rather late adolescence and early adulthood (Davis, 1979; Holbrook & Schindler, 1989; Schuman & Scott, 1989) or even no special period of life at all people are nostalgic for. Furthermore, answers regarding the BNI are often ambiguous as when somebody states he or she does not miss an item, it could mean he or she is not nostalgic. But it could also mean, the person does not miss the item, because it is still there, or because he or she had never really cared about it (e.g. “church/religion”), or never possessed it (e.g., a pet).

Another instrument to measure nostalgia as a trait was developed by Wildschut and colleagues (Sedikides et al., 2008) and is called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale (SNS). It is used in different versions consisting of four to seven item. The SNS is usually introduced to participants by stating that nostalgia is „a sentimental longing for the past”. Then participants are asked to indicate for example, how valuable nostalgia is or how often they experience nostalgia. The advantage of this scale is that it does not restrict nostalgia to a special time, but the disadvantage is that it leaves it to the participant if he or she thinks of the personal past or a past they never experienced themself. Thus, while some participants might answer the SNS thinking of personal nostalgia others might think of historical nostalgia. Furthermore, the SNS needs much more cognitive effort than the BNI as it asks participants to come up with a valid estimate of the frequency at which they experience nostalgia. Therefore the Southampton scale might measure rather cognitive attitudes towards the past than feelings connected with the past, although as stated above nostalgia is mainly defined to be an emotion.

Previous studies showed that the Batcho Nostalgia Inventory and the Southampton Nostalgia Scales are related to each other, but the correlation was only moderate (Routledge, et al., 2008; Fetchenhauer & Köneke, unpublished data). Therefore, in the present study, both the BNI and the SNS were used to make sure that its results were not limited to the special scale used to measure nostalgia.

Besides these measures, a number of other scales can be found in the literature (Holbrook, 1993; Wildschut et al, 2006, Godbole et al., 2006). However, as these measures are either less established or aim at a special usage of nostalgia in marketing, they are not used in the present study, and not discussed any further.

But as all measurements have in common to regard nostalgia as a personality trait,, the question arises, to what other personality features nostalgia is linked.

The older the more nostalgic? Age, gender and education

Nostalgia is often regarded to differ with age, gender and education (Davis, 1979). But again empirical evidence is ambiguous or lacking.

Gender . Concerning gender - especially in the beginning of nostalgia’s scientific history - men were supposed to be more nostalgic than women as they used to travel more and underwent more changes in life which was supposed to evoke nostalgia for maintaining self-identity (Davis, 1979). However, in some empirical studies women were found to be more nostalgic (Holbrook, 1993; Batcho et al. 2008). In turn others studies detected no effect of gender on nostalgia proneness at all (Sherman & Newman, 1977; Wildschut et al, 2006, Batcho, 1995; Batcho et al., 2008). Still, a robust finding refers to the fact that men and women are nostalgic for different things (Baker & Kennedy 1994; Havlena & Holak, 1991; Sherman & Newman 1977); and that nostalgia might mean something different for both genders (Greene, 1991; c.f. McDermott, 2002).

Age. A similar ambiguous picture emerges concerning age. Davis (1979) for example thought that the older people get, the more nostalgic they become. But many studies could not validate that nostalgia increases with age (Holbrook, 1993; Goulding, 2002). Batcho (1995) even showed evidence that younger participants might be more nostalgic; she attributed this to the fact that young people usually experience more changes and role transformations. Additionally Batcho found that the influence of age on nostalgia – as the one of gender - also depends on the item somebody is nostalgic for. In her study nostalgia for pets, holidays and toys diminished with age, but nostalgia for music increased. Recent studies have not helped much to shed more light on this issue as they mostly used student samples.

Education. The relationship of nostalgia to education has – as far as known - so long exclusively been discussed theoretically. Again recent studies dealing exclusively with student samples could not address this issue, and furthermore most arguments stem more from a philosophical than a psychological perspective. However concerning nostalgia in its ancient meaning of homesickness nostalgia was thought of to be especially prominent among less educated people (McCann, 1941). Concerning nostalgia in its current meaning of a yearning for the past Turner (1987) proposed intellectuals to be more susceptible for nostalgia instead. Also melancholia, which is sometimes equated with nostalgia, has often been ascribed to intellectuals such as Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger (c.f. Klibanzky, Panofsky & Sayl, 1964; Stauth & Turner, 1988; Turner, 1987; Lears, 1998).


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Nostalgia - More bitter than sweet
Are nostalgic people rather sad than happy after all?
LMU Munich  (Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialpsychologie)
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nostalgia, more
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Vanessa Köneke (Author), 2010, Nostalgia - More bitter than sweet, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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