Nostalgia Fosters Creativity

New research finds nostalgic longing opens us up and produces more imaginative writing.
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New research finds nostalgic longing opens us up and produces more imaginative writing.
(Photo: RG-vc/Shutterstock)

(Photo: RG-vc/Shutterstock)

Writers, artists, composers: Has your muse gone AWOL? Newly published research points to a surprising way to coax her back into your life.

Sit back, relax, and indulge in some wistful, affectionate reminiscing.

"Nostalgia has suffered an undeserved bad reputation," argues a trio of University of Southampton researchers led by psychologist Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg.

Sentimental longing for days gone by, they write, "harnesses the past for engaging with the present and future," and thereby "fosters creativity, and influences creative expression."

In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they present evidence that ruminating about long-ago events can inspire an attitude of openness, which in turn boosts innovative thinking. Creativity, they note, often involves "combining concepts that seem disparate;" nostalgia does something similar by evoking the past in the context of the present.

In order to create forward-looking work, it helps to get a little misty-eyed about memorable moments from our past. 

The researchers directly tested their thesis in the first two of their four experiments, which featured 51 and 124 University of Limerick undergraduates, respectively.

Half began with the instruction to "think of a past event that makes you feel nostalgic." They were then asked to "immerse yourself in the nostalgic experience" and then write about it for five minutes. The other half were instructed to think of an "ordinary experience" from their past, and write about that for five minutes.

All participants were then given a half-hour to write a story. Those in the first experiment "were instructed that the story had to mention three elements: a princess, a cat, and a race car." Those in the second experiment were simply given the first line of the tale: "One cold winter evening, a man and a woman were alarmed by a sound coming from a nearby house."

Two coders subsequently rated each story for its creativity on a scale of one to seven. They reported that, on average, those who were in a nostalgic frame of mind produced more creative prose than those who were not.

But did the warm glow of nostalgia simply put those participants in a better mood, which inspired their imaginations? To find out, the researchers conducted another experiment, featuring 106 Americans recruited online.

Once again, half were asked to come up with, and briefly write about, an event that made them feel nostalgia. The other half were asked to think about "a lucky event in your life," and write about that. All then responded to 10 statements designed to measure their openness to experience, such as "I see myself as someone who is curious about many different things."

Finally, all participants were given 10 common words, including "sun," "water," "money," and "sex," and instructed to "try to write a creative sentence" about each. Again, coders rated each sentence for its creativity on a one-to-seven scale.

The results: Thinking about either a nostalgic event or a lucky one both boosted participants' moods. However, those put in a nostalgic mood scored higher on the "openness to experience" scale. And most importantly, their sentences scored higher in terms of linguistic creativity.

It all suggests that "the openness that flows from nostalgia" fosters creativity, the researchers conclude. 

Their results leave us with the sort of paradox artists tend to enjoy: In order to create forward-looking work, it helps to get a little misty-eyed about memorable moments from our past. 

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