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Nostalgia is a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. The word nostalgia is a learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning "homecoming", a Homeric word, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning "pain, ache", and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Described as a medical condition—a form of melancholy—in the Early Modern period, it became an important trope in Romanticism.
In common, less clinical usage nostalgia can refer to a general interest in the past, their personalities and events, especially the "good old days" from one's earlier life. Boym argues that nostalgia is more prevalent during times of great upheaval.
The scientific literature on nostalgia is quite thin, but a few studies have attempted to pin down its essence and causes. Smell and touch are strong evokers of nostalgia due to the processing of these stimuli first passing through the amygdala, the emotional seat of the brain. These recollections of our past are usually important events, people we care about, and places where we have spent time. Music and weather can also be strong triggers of nostalgia.
Nostalgia's definition has changed greatly over time, as it was once considered a medical condition similar to homesickness. Nostalgia now, however, is considered to be an independent, and even positive emotion that many people experience often. Nostalgia has been found to have many functions, but those functions have not truly been defined or explicitly stated. Several research articles have led to the determination of the following as functions of nostalgia: improve mood, increase social connectedness, enhance positive self-regard, and provide existential meaning. Many nostalgic reflections serve more than one function at a time, and overall seem to benefit those who experience them.
Although nostalgia is often triggered by negative feelings, it results in increasing one's mood and heightening positive emotions, which can stem from feelings of warmth or coping resulting from nostalgic reflections. One way to improve mood is to effectively cope with problems that hinder one's happiness. Batcho (2013) found that nostalgia proneness positively related to successful methods of coping throughout all stages—planning and implementing strategies, and reframing the issue positively. These studies led to the conclusion that the coping strategies that are likely among nostalgia prone people often lead to benefits during stressful times. Nostalgia can be connected to more focus on coping strategies and implementing them, thus increasing support in challenging times.
Nostalgia also revolves typically around memories with close others, and thus it increases one's sense of social support and connections. Nostalgia is also triggered specifically by feelings of loneliness, but counteracts such feelings with reflections of close relationships. According to Zhou et al. (2008), lonely people often have lesser perceptions of social support. Loneliness, however, leads to nostalgia, which actually increases perceptions of social support. Thus, Zhou and colleagues (2008) concluded that nostalgia serves a restorative function for individuals regarding their social connectedness.
Nostalgia serves as a coping mechanism and helps people to feel better about themselves. Vess et al. (2012) found that the subjects who thought of nostalgic memories showed a greater accessibility of positive characteristics than those who thought of exciting future experiences. Additionally, in a second study conducted, some participants were exposed to nostalgic engagement and reflection while the other group was not. The researchers looked again at self-attributes and found that the participants who were not exposed to nostalgic experiences reflected a pattern of selfish and self-centered attributes. Vess et al. (2012), however, found that this effect had weakened and become less powerful among the participants who engaged in nostalgic reflection.
Nostalgia helps increase one's self-esteem and meaning in life by buffering threats to well-being and also by initiating a desire to deal with problems or stress. Routledge (2011) and colleagues found that nostalgia correlates positively with one's sense of meaning in life. The second study revealed that nostalgia increases one's perceived meaning in life, which was thought to be mediated by a sense of social support or connectedness. Thirdly, the researchers found that threatened meaning can even act as a trigger for nostalgia, thus increasing one's nostalgic reflections. By triggering nostalgia, though, one's defensiveness to such threat is minimized as found in the fourth study. The final two studies found that nostalgia is able to not only create meaning, but buffer threats to meaning by breaking the connection between a lack of meaning and one's well being. Follow-up studies also completed by Routledge in 2012 not only found meaning as a function of nostalgia, but also concluded that nostalgic people have greater perceived meaning, search for meaning less, and can better buffer existential threat.
One recent study critiques the idea of nostalgia, which in some forms can become a defense mechanism by which people avoid the historical facts. This study looked at the different portrayals of apartheid in South Africa and argued that nostalgia appears as two ways, 'restorative nostalgia' a wish to return to that past, and 'reflective nostalgia' which is more critically aware.
Reliving past memories may provide comfort and contribute to mental health. One notable recent medical study has looked at the physiological effects thinking about past 'good' memories can have. They found that thinking about the past 'fondly' actually increased perceptions of physical warmth.
The term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer (1669–1752) in his Basel dissertation. Hofer introduced nostalgia or mal du pays "homesickness" for the condition also known as mal du Suisse "Swiss illness" or Schweizerheimweh "Swiss homesickness," because of its frequent occurrence in Swiss mercenaries who in the plains of lowlands of France or Italy were pining for their native mountain landscapes. Symptoms were also thought to include fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death. Military physicians hypothesized that the malady was due to damage to the victims' brain cells and ear drums by the constant clanging of cowbells in the pastures of Switzerland.
English homesickness is a loan translation of nostalgia. Sir Joseph Banks used the word in his journal during the first voyage of Captain Cook. On 3 September 1770 he stated that the sailors "were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia," but his journal was not published in his lifetime (see Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.). The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768–1771, Public Library of New South Wales/Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1962, vol. ii, p. 145). Cases resulting in death were known and soldiers were sometimes successfully treated by being discharged and sent home. Receiving a diagnosis was, however, generally regarded as an insult. In 1787 Robert Hamilton (1749–1830) described a case of a soldier suffering from nostalgia, who received sensitive and successful treatment:
|“||In the year 1782, while I lay in barracks at Tin mouth in the north of England, a recruit who had lately joined the regiment ... was returned in sick list, with a message from his captain, requesting I would take him into the hospital. He had only been a few months a soldier; was young, handsome, and well-made for the service; but a melancholy hung over his countenance, and wanness preyed on his cheeks. He complained of a universal weakness, but no fixed pain; a noise in his ears, and giddiness of his head. ... As there were little obvious symptoms of fever, I did not well know what to make of the case. ... Some weeks passed with little alteration ... excepting that he was evidently become more meager. He scarcely took any nourishment ... became indolent. ... He was put on a course of strengthening medicines; wine was allowed him. All proved ineffectual. He had now been in the hospital three months, and was quite emaciated, and like one in the last stage of consumption. ... On making my morning visit, and inquiring, as usual, of his rest at the nurse, she happened to mention the strong notions he had got in his head, she said, of home, and of his friends. What he was able to speak was constantly on this topic. This I had never heard of before. ... He had talked in the same style, it seems, less or more, ever since he came into the hospital. I went immediately up to him, and introduced the subject; and from the alacrity with which he resumed it.. I found it a theme which much affected him. He asked me, with earnestness, if I would let him go home. I pointed out to him how unfit he was, from his weakness to undertake such a journey [he was a Welchman] till once he was better; but promised him, assuredly, without farther hesitation, that as soon as he was able he should have six weeks to go home. He revived at the very thought of it. ... His appetite soon mended; and I saw in less than a week, evident signs of recovery.||”|
In the eighteenth century, scientists were looking for a locus of nostalgia, a nostalgic bone. By the 1850s nostalgia was losing its status as a particular disease and coming to be seen rather as a symptom or stage of a pathological process. It was considered as a form of melancholia and a predisposing condition among suicides. Nostalgia was, however, still diagnosed among soldiers as late as the American Civil War. By the 1870s interest in nostalgia as a medical category had all but vanished. Nostalgia was still being recognized in both the First and Second World Wars, especially by the American armed forces. Great lengths were taken to study and understand the condition to stem the tide of troops leaving the front in droves (see the BBC documentary Century of the Self).
Nostalgia is triggered by something reminding an individual of an event or item from their past. The resulting emotion can vary from happiness to sorrow. The term of "feeling nostalgic" is more commonly used to describe pleasurable emotions associated with and/or a longing to go back to a particular period of time, although the former may also be true.
Swiss nostalgia was linked to the singing of Kuhreihen, which were forbidden to Swiss mercenaries because they led to nostalgia to the point of desertion, illness or death. The 1767 Dictionnaire de Musique by Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that Swiss mercenaries were threatened with severe punishment to prevent them from singing their Swiss songs. It became somewhat of a topos in Romantic literature, and figures in the poem Der Schweizer by Achim von Arnim (1805) and in Clemens Brentano's Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1809) as well as in the opera Le Chalet by Adolphe Charles Adam (1834) which was performed for Queen Victoria under the title The Swiss Cottage. The Romantic connection of nostalgia, the Kuhreihen and the Swiss Alps was a significant factor in the enthusiasm for Switzerland, the development of early tourism in Switzerland and Alpinism that took hold of the European cultural elite in the 19th century. German Romanticism coined an opposite to Heimweh, Fernweh "far-sickness," "longing to be far away," like wanderlust expressing the Romantic desire to travel and explore.