March 16, 2019

Using Nostalgia to Increase Motivation and Counteract Threats

by Andrew Watkins, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, St. Dominic Memorial Hospital

Nostalgia, “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past,” has become a topic of active research in recent years.1 It is a unique emotion that is anchored in social interactions and past experiences that invoke both positive feelings of support but also feelings of longing. Despite its bittersweet nature, it tends to be a positive emotion that people of all ages and cultures experience. Evidence now suggestions that nostalgia has a role as a psychological balancer, maintaining homeostasis and comforting people in times of stress or adversity. Nostalgia can be prompted by a number of stimuli such as smells, tastes, or visual information. In addition to these stimuli, nostalgia can also be prompted by feelings of loneliness, angst, or unrest. It is in these situations that nostalgia works to counteract these negative experiences and rebalance one’s emotional state. For example, it is not uncommon during times of stress or hardship to reminisce or nostalgize about good times experienced in the past. While these feelings are bittersweet and emphasize the dichotomy between the past and present, they promote positive emotions that can act as a buffer to help one progress through current situations.

One of the fascinating things about nostalgia is that the event being remembered need not be positive for the nostalgic feelings to be positive. There are many times when remembering a “bad” or negative past event or time period can still invoke positive feelings. One example, many people reminiscing about early times in a relationship or creating a business when there were hardships or financial struggles. The experience was probably not enjoyable at the time, but reminiscing about it will likely invoke positive feelings of happiness and pride in your ability to navigate those difficult times and grow. The role of nostalgia as a tool in education is relatively unexplored. As educational environments often elicit feelings of stress or anxiety, the use of nostalgia to mitigate these feelings is a very intriguing area of research.

When pursuing goals, people typically appraise tasks as threats or challenges. Threats are seen as negative experiences in which one may experience loss or may not be able to meet demands. On the other hand, challenges are seen as positive experiences that provide opportunities for growth. Threat appraisals in an educational context have been associated with procrastination, higher anxiety, lower performance, and decreased intrinsic motivation.2-5 These effects are very detrimental because a decrease in intrinsic motivation arguably has the greatest negative effect on performance.6 If using the homeostatic model of nostalgia, one might expect a negative stimulus to prompt nostalgic feelings, which then help offset the negative stimulus. Numerous studies have found this to be the case; threats against self-esteem, meaning in life, and social connectedness have all been found to be reversed by nostalgia.7-10 As an example, one of these studies involved researchers prompting one group of participants to think of a nostalgic experience. In a questionnaire given after this experience, these participants reported stronger feelings of support and self-regard than those who were not prompted to think of a nostalgic experience. Using this homeostatic model in the context of threat/challenge appraisals, one could hypothesize that the negative stimulus of a threat appraisal would stimulate nostalgia, which would counteract the negative feelings and increase intrinsic motivation. Challenge appraisals, because of their positive connotations, would theoretically not prompt nostalgic feelings. Knowing this, a group of researchers recently set out to explore whether nostalgia could restore the intrinsic motivation prompted by threat appraisals.11

In their study, the authors deployed a number of specifically timed questionnaires to students (n = 382, age 18 to 27 years) who attended at a university in Northeastern United States. The experiment began with a baseline nostalgia inventory (T0 nostalgia) that where participants indicated how nostalgic they felt in the preceding days. The scores from this questionnaire were averaged to create a nostalgia index score. Two months later (around the middle of the semester), participants answered questionnaires to assess their threat and challenge appraisals (T1 threat and T1 challenge). The scores were averaged to give each participant both a threat and a challenge index score. Lastly, the participants were asked one month later (toward the end of the semester) to answer the same nostalgia inventory (T2 nostalgia) as well as an intrinsic motivation scale (T2 intrinsic motivation). The relationships among these variables were then analyzed.

The results suggest that perceived threats may promote nostalgia. Threat appraisals were negatively associated with intrinsic motivation and positively associated with the T2 nostalgia score, even when controlling for baseline T0 nostalgia in a regression analysis. Moreover, the authors found that T2 nostalgia was positively associated with intrinsic motivation. These results align with the idea that threat appraisals decrease intrinsic motivation but also increase nostalgia. This nostalgia then acts to balance the negative effects by increasing intrinsic motivation. Next, the authors found that challenge appraisals were associated with higher intrinsic motivation. Challenge appraisals were also associated with higher T2 nostalgia, but this relationship was no longer significant when T0 baseline nostalgia was taken into account. This implies that challenge appraisals do not predict a change in nostalgia over time like threat appraisals do. This nostalgia indirectly increases intrinsic motivation in response to threat appraisals but are unaffected by challenge appraisals.

This evidence opens the door for future research into nostalgia as a tool to overcome a variety of perceived threats in educational settings. I personally think that nostalgia is a promising tool to help students experiencing stress or feelings of being overwhelmed. I could see it playing a role in individual student counseling sessions, which could involve the educator prompting the student to reflect on past experiences and how he or she handled those situations. These sessions could also be as simple as a student just talking through a past experience(s) while the educator listens, prompting internal feelings of reassurance and promoting the student’s self-esteem.

One could also imagine brief nostalgic writing assignments, perhaps weekly, during a course. An instructor could ask students to briefly write about a time in their past when certain feelings or events happened (e.g. time of difficulty, a prideful experience) and how the situation was resolved or handled. The writing prompts could change each week to avoid assignment burnout. These types of brief written assignments would give students the opportunities to express themselves and would force them to reflect on past events. Or perhaps simply making brief cultural references to the past (i.e. music, TV shows) during class sessions could subconsciously promote nostalgic feelings in students, which might promote positive feelings and improve intrinsic motivation. Nostalgia appears to be a promising tool. We need more research in order to optimize its use in education.

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  11. Bialobrzeska O, Elliot AJ, Wildschut T et al (2019). Nostalgia counteracts the negative relation between threat appraisals and intrinsic motivation in an educational context. Learn Individ Differ. 2019;69:219–24.

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