Nostalgic Healing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There was a time, not so long ago, when nostalgia was classified as a mental disorder. Psychology texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries described nostalgia as a form of “melancholia,” an “immigrant psychosis,” and a “monomaniacal obsessive mental state causing intense unhappiness.” These negative views inherited the term’s original connotation, as coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688. He called nostalgia a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.”

Nostalgia has accumulated positive associations in recent years. Pop culture “nostalgia dealers,” specializing in vinyl records, comic books, and motion picture reboots, capitalize on the public’s wistful longing for the past. Social media sites like Facebook make it possible to stay in touch with people from different stages of our lives, fortifying links between who we were and who we are today. This healthy sense of self-continuity begins in young children, who fondly reminisce about birthdays and family vacations.

A host of social-psychological studies have found nostalgia to be effective in counteracting loneliness, easing anxiety, increasing generosity, and strengthening relationships. Even when yearnings stir bittersweet emotions, they imbue our lives with meaning and make the end of life less frightening. Dr. Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University observes: “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”

Music is a favorite nostalgia tool for laypeople and researchers alike. An experiment conducted by Routledge and colleagues showed that playing hit songs from the past makes life seem “worth living” and wards off despair. Psychologists in the Netherlands found that listening to nostalgic songs makes people feel physically warmer.

study from Scotland’s Glasgow Caledonian University tested the effects of music listening on the perception and tolerance of experimentally induced cold pressor pain. Fifty-four participants were subjected to three cold pressor trials. The first was accompanied by white noise, the second by specially designed “relaxation music,” and the third by the participants’ chosen music. When listening to preferred music, participants tolerated the pain stimulus significantly longer than when listening to white noise or relaxation music. They also reported having a much greater sense of control when hearing their chosen music.

While this study did not involve nostalgic music, per se, we can assume that at least some of the favored music fit that description. We might even expect stronger coping from expressly nostalgic music. Not only does this put to question the comparative efficacy of music marketed for healing (the type featuring drawn-out tones, flowing rhythms, atmospheric drones, and minimal chord changes), but it also suggests that the best music for mood regulation may be totally idiosyncratic: my nostalgia is not necessarily your nostalgia. Wistful affection, in short, is a key factor when considering music for pain relief, well-being, and life-affirmation.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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