Above: Image © Metaphortography, iStockphoto.com

Every Thursday, millions of people login to Instagram and share their throwbacks to the good ol’ days. But why has #tbt become such a popular tradition?

Nostalgia is a warm, fuzzy longing for the past. Doctors actually considered it a brain disease until the early 1800s! But today, psychologists who study the mind and human behaviour view nostalgia as a perfectly normal feeling.

Researchers have also been hard at work trying to understand exactly how and why nostalgia happens. And it turns out that nostalgia can be a big help if you’re feeling sad, lonely or cold!

Did you know? In late 2016, #tbt was the fourth most popular hashtag on Instagram (after #love, #instagood, and #photooftheday). At that time, there were over 347 million posts tagged with #tbt!

What makes people nostalgic?

Psychologists have done several experiments to figure out what triggers nostalgia. Here are some examples of what they’ve found:

Nostalgia and sadness

In one study, researchers divided participants into three groups. The first group read a happy article, the second group read a sad article and the third group read a neutral article. When they were done reading, each person described how much they missed the past. Participants who read the sad article missed the past more than participants who read the happy or neutral article. In other words, the “sad” participants felt more nostalgic.

Nostalgia and loneliness

In another study, researchers divided participants into two groups. They tricked the members of the first group into thinking they were lonely by giving them a carefully worded questionnaire and telling them their answers suggested they were lonely.

Researchers gave the second group a different questionnaire and told these participants they didn’t seem lonely.

The researchers didn’t really know if participants in the first group felt lonelier than the others. But to study the effects of loneliness on nostalgia, they needed them to believe they were lonely. And it turned out that the “lonely” participants in the first group felt more nostalgic than the others.

Nostalgia and coldness

In a third study, researchers placed participants in one of three rooms: a cold room, a hot room or a neutral room. Participants in the cold room were more likely to think about the past than those in the hot and neutral rooms.

Did you know? Nostalgia is formed from two Greek words: nóstos (to return) and àlgos (pain).

What are the benefits of nostalgia?

It turns out that nostalgia has many benefits. It can actually help alleviate (cure) sadness, loneliness and coldness. In other words, it can increase happiness, sociability and warmth. Here are some examples of studies that have shown these benefits:

Nostalgia and happiness

The nostalgia and sadness study also looked at nostalgia and happiness. To do this, psychologists divided participants into two groups. They asked the first group to think of something nostalgic, like a good childhood memory. They asked the second to think of an ordinary memory, such as what they ate for lunch a week ago.

Afterward, researchers asked the participants how happy and self-confident they felt when they thought about these memories. Those who had thought of something nostalgic felt happier and more self-confident than the others.

Nostalgia and sociability

In a similar study, participants who thought of something nostalgic were more likely to approach and help a stranger than those who thought of an ordinary memory.

Another experiment involved four groups of undergraduate students from the University of Southampton. Researchers asked one group to think about an event they had all attended. They asked another group to think of a nostalgic memory of their choice. They asked a third group to remember something lucky that had happened to all of them. The fourth group didn’t have to remember anything.

Afterward, participants answered a questionnaire. Compared to the others, members of the first group not only gave more positive answers, but they were also more willing to approach other Southampton students.

Nostalgia and warmth

The nostalgia and coldness study also looked at nostalgia and warmth. Researchers found that nostalgic participants felt warmer than non-nostalgic participants. Nostalgic participants also described the temperature in the room as higher than it really was.

Psychologists also conducted a follow-up study using a cold water bath. They found that nostalgic participants could keep their hand in the bath longer than participants who weren’t feeling nostalgic.

The power of nostalgia

Nostalgia can make you happier, friendlier and even warmer. So the next time you’re feeling blue, why not sit back, relax and get nostalgic? Browse through your childhood photo albums, listen to some throwback songs (Spice Girls, anyone?) or watch your favorite Disney movies (Lion King is #love). Let the warm, fuzzy feelings take you over. And remember to share that warmth using #tbt!

Learn more!

Why nostalgia is good for you (2016)
M.Hitson, Scientific American

What is nostalgia good for? Quite a bit, research shows (2013)
J. TIerney, The New York Times

Moushumi Nath

 I am a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the Department of Physiology. I study how the brain functions in learning and memory! This means I get to play with mice, visualize the brain, and listen in on how neurons communicate with each other. My interests in learning and memory began during my undergraduate degree at McGill University, where I completed a BSc in Honours Neuroscience. I look forward to continuing to engage in the fields of science communication and science policy. Sidenote: I am an avid free-food scavenger.

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