The first written record of the word "nostalgia" appeared in 1668. It referred to severe homesickness, but words change over time. Nostalgia is now defined as a multilayered emotion characterized by a longing for the past. Most memories associated with nostalgia are personally meaningful.

Despite differences between nations, various studies find that cultures all over the world report nostalgia. People describe these feelings in very similar ways and mention most of the same characteristics. Nostalgia is a vital part of the human psyche, regardless of nation, class or, culture.

The "Symptoms" of Nostalgia

Nostalgia's signature is simply the overall feeling it produces. A positive signature usually follows pleasant, joyful memories. and prompts emotions such as pleasure, joy, happiness, love, and peace.

A negative signature may be associated with unpleasant memories. These memories can spark frustration, despair, hate, shame, grief, or sadness. The most recognizable negative signature may be a distressing belief that something in the past is gone forever, as opposed to negative feelings about the memory itself.

young woman at work desk staring off into space


Bittersweet Emotions

Mixed-affect nostalgia triggers positive emotions with an overlay of negative feelings. This state of mind may be described as bittersweet. Sadness or grief can accompany joyful memories. Losing loved ones can make nostalgia worse than bittersweet, and treasured memories may not be welcome until emotional healing begins. Most people find joy in memories of lost loved ones eventually, but those memories will always have a tinge of sadness.

older couple looking at old, sepia photographs


Nostalgia Triggers

Anything that resembles a past event in a person's life can trigger nostalgia. Touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste, are common triggers. Many people report feeling nostalgic after hearing familiar music or noticing a certain smell. Familiar words and phrases during a conversation can also be triggers. Some people intentionally recollect specific memories to spark nostalgia, but it usually happens by accident.

two generations couple talking over pizza


Nostalgia Benefits

Psychological health may depend on nostalgia to some extent. A nostalgic experience can help solidify one's identity by offering them reminders of thoughts, feelings, and goals at earlier times in their life. Nostalgia may be useful during transitional periods, such as starting a new job or getting married.

Young adults report feelings of nostalgia more than any other age group. Numbers drop sharply in middle age and rise again among older adults. Nostalgia may take on even more importance to this demographic,  as these memories let them carefully reevaluate past actions while cherishing loved ones and precious memories.

older woman with blanket and tea smiling into the distance


Loneliness and Love

Sometimes loneliness can bring on nostalgia. Reminiscing about relationships and memories of love and happiness can be comforting. Nostalgia can also increase empathy.

Researchers find that nostalgia may reduce stress and improve a person's mood and outlook. Comparing past and present experiences lets people explore self-awareness and find more meaning in life.

older woman looking serious out of window


Personal vs. Historical Nostalgia

Two main types of nostalgia exist. A person yearning to go back to an earlier time in his own life is experiencing personal nostalgia. People with historical nostalgia long to return to a place and time they never experienced, such as the Victorian era. It's an abstract desire based on a belief that this time period is preferable to the modern world.

Admiring some aspects of earlier generations isn't a problem in itself, but idealized views of history are rarely accurate. People in 1850 or 1950 weren't living perfect lives any more than their modern counterparts do now.

middle aged man dressed in old Victorian era clothing


Rose-Colored Glasses

Like with historical nostalgia, our remembered past may be idealized. A combination of several memories from different times may be combined into a sanitized screen memory. This is sometimes called looking through rose-colored glasses. The person basking in memories discards the unpleasant details, painting the past to look much better than the present.

Memory isn't perfect and unpleasant issues and events existed in the past, too. This can be problematic if we wholeheartedly believe in this scrubbed view, but it is also one way we heal from past traumas — by remembering the good parts more than the bad.

nostalgic older couple looking at photo albums


Problematic Nostalgia

Problems related to nostalgia usually involve several factors. People may feel depressed, angry, or hopeless when nostalgia reminds them of joy and happiness that seem long gone. This scenario can escalate if the person also feels grief and guilt. A decision with unforeseen consequences that harms family or friends can be devastating. Real or perceived responsibility for a choice that ended in tragedy can cause people to experience severe emotional or even physical symptoms.

Signs of problematic nostalgia include crying, anger, insomnia, poor appetite, headaches, nausea, and vomiting.

sad, unwell woman wrapped in a blanket



Nostalgia was once considered an illness. A Swiss physician applied it to soldiers fighting in foreign lands. He theorized that physical symptoms of illness came from extended time away from home. Modern mental health professionals know nostalgia is a good coping skill. However, if a person has an underlying medical issue, this can lead to problematic nostalgia or too much dwelling on the past.

young unhappy man in counselling


Nostalgia Definition

English is a complex language that incorporates bits and pieces of other languages as well. Nostalgia is a conglomeration of German, French, Greek, and Swiss words and concepts. Many English words have similar meanings, but subtle differences and the surrounding context determine the most appropriate term.

Nostalgia is similar to reminiscing, and reminiscing frequently occurs with nostalgia, but they refer to different concepts. Reminiscing is the process of recalling memories and events. Nostalgia involves memories, but the key characteristic is a sense of longing for the past.

dictionary definition concept of nostalgia


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