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7 Moments When Nostalgia Becomes a Bad, Bad Thing

We often see nostalgia as something sweet and endearing, but that’s not always true. Experts call nostalgia a “mixed emotion” because its effects can be good or bad.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, nostalgia sometimes stops being a comforting old friend and becomes our darkest enemy. These are situations when that’s the case.

1: Taking From the Present

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If you use nostalgia to avoid the present and live in the past, it’s more negative than positive. It can be easy to paint the past gold while viewing the present in shades of grey, which increases negative emotions like sadness and anxiety.  

2: Craze-Inducing 

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In some cases, too much nostalgia can lead to crazy behavior. Case in point? Stalking your ex on social media. Hoarding useless items because they’re tied to good memories is another way nostalgia ties us down. 

3: Glorifying the Good, Skipping the Bad 

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In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Valentina Stoycheva writes that nostalgia becomes problematic when we “glorify some historical past, without acknowledging the many cultural and collective traumas of that past.” She cites human rights violations such as racism and sexism as examples.

4: Cycle of Distress 

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Researchers analyzing patient diaries found nostalgia can deepen negative feelings by creating a cycle of distress. They note that spontaneous nostalgia that occurs throughout the day, particularly after an unpleasant event, can cause people to fixate on negative feelings, which prompts further nostalgia. 

5: Loneliness 


It’s common to feel nostalgic when you miss a loved one you’ve lost. In this scenario, nostalgia can deepen feelings of loneliness, especially if you feel like you didn’t get the closure you needed in the relationship. 

6: It Can Become Anticipatory

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Anticipatory nostalgia is when you long for someone or something you haven’t lost yet but are sure you will. It tends to happen in the middle of something really great, like during a romantic weekend with your partner or while enjoying a family vacation. Even though you’re enjoying yourself, you know you won’t get these moments back, which can trigger sadness.  

7: Nostalgic Depression 

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Yearning for the past and ignoring the present can lead to symptoms of depression. Though nostalgic depression is not an official depression subtype, it can create feelings of deep loneliness and anxiety, which are symptoms of depression. 

Nostalgia Defined

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Nostalgia refers to the sentimental feelings you get when you recall significant moments from your past. Though research primarily focuses on nostalgia’s positive aspects, it’s not always a beneficial emotion. 

Types of Nostalgia 

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Nostalgia comes in more than one flavor. There’s historical nostalgia, which could lead someone to long for a period of history that predates their birth. Then there’s personal nostalgia, which makes you long for the happy periods in your life. 

A Mixed Emotion

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USC Dornsife psychologists found that people tend to remember the “good old days” when they’re unhappy with their present situation. In their research, they labeled nostalgia as a mixed emotion. 

Why the Positive Research

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The USC Dornsife team found most nostalgia research asked participants to describe a memory that made them feel nostalgic. They theorized that this approach allowed positive memories to dominate and ignored the negative side of nostalgia. 

Studying Nostalgia in Full 

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To study nostalgia’s many aspects, USC researchers asked 230 students to complete questionnaires for 14 straight days. The diary-style study asked students to describe their interactions with others, as well as positive and negative achievements they had, like acing a test or falling behind in a class.

They also asked about nostalgic moments they experienced throughout the day, like hearing an old song on the radio.  

What They Found 

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After analyzing student responses, USC researchers discovered that students were more likely to feel nostalgic when things weren’t going well. On days when people felt most nostalgic, they were more likely to feel depressed, lonely, or dissatisfied with their life. They also reported lower self-esteem and more anxiety. 

Not All Bad

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Though nostalgia can trigger negative emotions, it’s not all bad. USC researchers found that people also experienced nostalgia during or after positive interactions, such as when they were helping others. 

Nostalgia Has Purpose 

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While the emotions nostalgia triggers may be mixed, psychologists argue that it has deep purposes in our psyche. Nostalgia serves a number of functions, according to psychologist and professor Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., who spoke about it in-depth during an interview on the Speaking of Psychology podcast (put out by the American Psychological Association). 

A Unifying Experience 

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According to Dr. Batcho, nostalgia is a unifying experience. It can unite our sense of self with our past identity by motivating us to remember the past. When we remember the authentic self of our youth, it also gives us direction for the future. 

Highly Social Emotion

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Dr. Batcho also notes that nostalgia is a highly social emotion. It’s what helps us form early bonds with family and eventually helps us bond with a greater circle of friends. When we feel warm nostalgic feelings about holidays or certain activities, like pulling all-nighters with a study group in college, we strengthen our bonds with the people those memories include. 

Resolving Time’s Conflict 

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Nostalgia may also help us deal with the conflict of time. Dr. Batcho points out that time is irreversible, so nostalgia helps us to unify “the bitter longing for what can never be again” and “the sweetness of having experienced it.”

Stabilizing Force

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Dr. Batcho’s research suggests that Nostalgia can be a stabilizing force during times of stress and change. According to Dr. Batcho, nostalgia can remind us who we really are when everything seems to be changing course. 

Nostalgia Surge

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According to researchers, nostalgia-seeking behavior, like wanting to watch familiar movies from childhood or listen to old songs, surges during times of national crisis. They believe this is why nostalgic movie remakes and sequels like Top Gun and Indiana Jones did so well during and directly after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Effect on Our Brain

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Research shows nostalgia has beneficial effects on our brains when we’re experiencing a crisis. According to one study, nostalgia increases our feeling of well-being, making it easier to cope with negative events. 

More Optimistic

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Nostalgia also has the ability to make us feel more optimistic and creative. It can increase our energy and make us more likely to pursue our goals.  

Decrease Pain

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Another study revealed that nostalgia can help us reduce our perception of pain and increase our threat detection capabilities. Study participants thinking about a nostalgic memory showed more brain activity while reading threatening text. 

Good vs Bad  

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Nostalgia can be a good thing, and research suggests it’s a necessary part of our human experience. However, falling too deep into the nostalgia trap can lead to rumination, which produces negative feelings. Researchers say while some nostalgia is good, too much is never a good thing. 

15 Things Americans Miss About the ’90s and 2000s

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From low-rise jeans to the all too familiar noise of dial-up internet, there’s a lot to be nostalgic about from the 1990s and 2000s. These are some of the things Americans miss the most.

15 Things Americans Miss About the ’90s and 2000s

15 Things From the ’50s and ’60s That’ll Make You Nostalgic

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People who lived through the ’50s and ’60s will (mostly) appreciate remembering these forgotten things from the era that deserves a shoutout. 

15 Things From the ’50s and ’60s That’ll Make You Nostalgic


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