The psychology of nostalgia

How would you complete the word: “COFF_ _”?

If you answered “COFFIN”, then according to a recent study cited in this month’s edition of The Psychologist, you have a higher-than-average anxiety about death – whereas if you answered “COFFEE”, you have a more positive sense of life and mortality.

So far, so trivial, you might say.  But where this study (which won the President’s Award at the 2012 British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference) gets really interesting is in the related finding that these feelings are, in turn, correlated with one’s disposition towards nostalgia.  In particular, the report contains the surprising discovery that people with a stronger sense of nostalgia are more likely to take a positive view of life.

The opposite might have been expected to be the case (nostalgia is typically seen as a somewhat negative rejection of contemporary times, and even as a psychological dysfunction).  But the study’s author (Constantine Sedikedes of the University of Southampton) explains the finding, using other tests to show that people with a stronger sense of their roots feel more socially connected and more securely attached, leading to a greater appreciation of the meaning of life.

I wish I’d had this research a few years ago, when we were relaunching Hovis.  Back then, the idea of using your roots to demonstrate modern relevance was considered madness (a surefire way to make an old-fashioned brand look even more dated) so it would have come in handy for a few presentations to the battle-weary salesforce!

Now of course, after a wave of copycats (“miaow”, I hear you say), the value of nostalgia in marketing is better established – almost to the point of over-use.  But the underlying rationale deserves repeating: because in our rush to embrace the new, we sometimes forget what’s gone before.

This study reminds us of a bigger point, whether or not a literal take on nostalgia is appropriate (it probably isn’t: just as you don’t have to dress up in your old clothes to remember your roots, you don’t have to set your ads in the past to make them feel grounded).  Namely that we humans feel happier setting off into the wild blue yonder, when we have a secure sense of where we’re from.

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