The Productive Power of Nostalgia

Social media is blowing up in anticipation of new releases of Men in Black, Star Wars, and Frozen.  American Idol is starting a new season with brand new celebrity judges. The Jonas Brothers are #1 on the charts.  If you don’t look too hard, you might guess we’re somewhere in the early 2000s.  Reboot culture, across music, TV, and film franchises alike has reached a peak – and not without criticism.  But while this seems like an easy opportunity to fall back on “millennials can’t grow up” stereotypes, there might be something more impactful – and more inspiring – going on.

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New Star Wars Cast John Boyega Daisy Ridley unite inspirational cast

The original Star Wars cast joins the stars of the franchise’s reboot at Comic Con in 2015

Sparking the Emotional Connection

At face value, reboots are a way to reconnect with our childhoods. Think of how many college kids choose to spend their spring break at Disney World.  There’s something uniquely comforting – and exciting – about immersing yourself in the story lines and characters you used to love. There’s an unexpected reconnection with our sense of wonder, which is admittedly hard to come by these days.

Even the more resistant aren’t totally immune to it.  Last weekend, I sat in front of the TV with my roommates – one a counselor and one a neuroscientist – while we shrieked along to the Sucker music video.  It was unreasonable.  But all of the sudden, it felt like August 2008, and I had lawn tickets to the Jonas Brothers’ Burnin’ Up Tour.  And when you’re a middle schooler at your first boy band concert, that feeling is truly unreasonable. I was shocked, honestly, by all the visceral memories that came flooding back.

The ability of media to re-immerse us in the emotion and excitement of childhood can create really meaningful experiences for us as (often tired and cynical) adults.  Beyond the feel-good value, though, does nostalgia and reboot culture offer anything else useful? According to a recent study out of the U.K., the answer is a resounding yes.

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The Jonas Brothers circa 2009 – a full decade before their reunion single would hit #1 on the Billboard charts

The Positive Psychology of Nostalgia

In a cognitive study on nostalgia at the University of Southampton, researchers found that, instead of working merely as escapism, engagement with nostalgia actually makes us more productive and forward-thinking.  Results show that nostalgia “galvanized goal pursuit,” or in other terms, it got people inspired.

Participants were asked to reflect on a nostalgic event in their lives while being exposed to song lyrics, scents, and music that evoked good memories, while a control group was asked to reflect on ordinary events.  After completing a variety of exercises, the participants in the “nostalgia group” showed overwhelming positives: increased creativity, higher motivation, stronger social connectedness, and higher “exploratory intentions,” meaning a positive, curious view of the future.  A Guardian interview with primary researchers puts these results in even clearer terms, explaining “nostalgia did not seem a malady, but a powerful stimulant to feel optimistic about the future.”

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Participants in the Southampton study were asked to briefly journal about a nostalgic memory before undergoing tests

The most surprising result of the study might just be increased social connectedness.  Inspiration is one thing, but feeling a stronger sense of community and connection with others has even wider implications.  During the study, participants exposed to nostalgic material demonstrated higher tendency toward “physical proximity, helping, donations to charity, and willingness for intergroup contact.”  This is majorly valuable: there is evidence that nostalgia helps us act more compassionately.  In a country and world that looks more divided than ever, channeling that prosocial energy might be an excellent tool towards progress. I’m not saying that getting hyped for the new Star Wars movie will save the world, but it looks like it could be pretty good at helping us feel more compassion.

How to Put Nostalgia to Work

Conveniently, moving in the direction of progress is already somewhat inherent in reboot culture: the idea of growth.  Often, reboots of TV and movies will feature the cast as “all grown up” (think “Fuller House), or teen bands will reunite with a newer, more adult sound.  The value here is in taking those nostalgic emotions and channeling them into forward-thinking content. That’s a great example of how, as the Southampton study suggests, engaging with nostalgia sparks inspiration, motivation, and inevitably connectedness.

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Music, along with smell, is said to trigger some of the strongest memories

Harnessing nostalgia in a productive way is all about channeling the positive energy upward and outward.  Before we start our work day, we might consider listening to an old favorite song, or going through some old vacation albums.  When we’re looking to boost creativity, returning to an old source of inspiration will likely bring new light to an idea, or spark an entirely new concept.  Rather than wish to go back to the old days, we can choose to embrace those good memories – to keep them in our back pockets as inspiration to build an even better future.  The best news? As the U.K. study suggests, we’re naturally inclined to do so.

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