How Being Stuck in the Past May Actually Brighten Your Future

by Katie Samples, Kenyon ’18

With the fast-paced and chaotic manner of today’s society, typical to the United States, it has become a bit of a stigma to be weighed down with the intricacies of the past. Ruminating on the events that brought one to her current state would seemingly stifle one’s abilities to move forward and keep up with the perpetually moving world. However, a recent study by Matthew Baldwin, Monica Biernat, and Mark J. Landau reveal that bouts of nostalgic rumination may actually lead not only to a happier self-concept, but also to positive future outcomes.

While nostalgia has not always had the positive connotation it currently denotes, (it was actually recognized as a viable cause of death during the mid 20th century) it is now recognized as a mechanism that provides positive psychological affect. Previous research has suggested that by spending a little time in a nostalgic reverie, one actually boosts long-term feelings of social connectedness (X. Zhau, Sedikides, Wildschut & Gao, 2008). Nostalgia has also shown to help bolster self-esteem and produce a happy, and optimistic outlook on life (Routledge, Arndt, Wildschut, Sedikides, Hart, Juhl et al., 2011; Routledge, Wildschut, Sedikides, Hart, Juhl & Arndt, 2012).

It would almost seem that the brain uses nostalgia as a sort of defense and coping mechanism when one is faced with the inevitable changes and struggle of life. Nostalgia, beyond working to promote happiness, also works as a buffer against painful emotions (Wildschut et al., 2010; Zhou et al., 2008). Nostalgic indulgence works as a shield against self-esteem issues by providing a blissful remembrance that references a time when one is at her best. Just imagine, receiving back a test that you performed absolutely atrociously on; rather than letting the poor performance hurt your self-esteem by accepting the notion that you are stupid, you are instead thrown back into a proud remembrance of a 100% you got on the previous test. Turning to this nostalgic memory in a time when self-esteem is threatened, helps preserve a positive self-image.

Nostalgia, in summation, is good for you. It is because of these positive effects nostalgia has on the psyche, that Baldwin, Biernat, and Landau hypothesized that it may serve as a function of self-understanding. In other words, by being nostalgic, and reflecting back on past experiences, it is possible to become more familiarized with the “actual you.”

One is more likely to recall instances of authenticity in nostalgic reverie, meaning that it is more likely that instances that reflect one’s true dispositional tendencies will emerge and offer insight. The positive emotions associated with authenticity and understanding of one’s self, as Baldwin, Biernat, and Landau asserted, distract from concern over others’ view of you as well.

Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, by spending a little time dwelling in the past, it is possible that you are actually helping to brighten your future. Nostalgia has been shown to increase motivation by offering a self-perception that is more likely to gear one towards goal-attainment. This trend is most likely due to reflections on experiences that speak to one’s true values and passions—mulling over such experiences, consequently inspires longing to reenact those positive memories, and may lead to following goals associated with one’s intrinsic motivations. (Baldwin, Biernat, & Landau, 2014).

Baldwin, Biernat & Landou’s 2014 study worked to produce a cohesive model of how nostalgia specifically impacts well-being. Their conclusive findings suggest that the insight into intrinsic self-concept, understanding and motivation ultimately yield the positive affect that has been reported in previous studies.

So, while being stuck in the past may have been presented as a negative quality to possess up to this point, the recent findings on nostalgia show that through a little reflection, it is possible to protect yourself, love yourself more, and ultimately, get to know yourself a little better. It stands to reason that those memories one losses herself in, and loves to dwell upon are the ones that can reveal what she finds truly important. By recognizing what offers comfort in memory, it is possible to realize what might provide happiness in the future.


Baldwin, M., Biernat M., Landau, M. J. (2014). Remembering the real me: Nostalgia offers a window to the intrinsic self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 108(1), 128-147.

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