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Nostalgic thoughts of happier times can help overcome loneliness

Nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past, has a crucial part to play in combating feelings of isolation and loneliness, claim researchers in a new study.

Their findings suggest that for lonely people, drawing on nostalgic memories of happier times could provide a coping mechanism for their feelings, magnifying perceptions of social support and restoring an individual's feelings of social connectedness.

Loneliness is connected to a perceived lack of social support networks, such as close friends and family, and is usually eased by actively seeking support and company from those networks.

However, many lonely people find it difficult to deal with their loneliness directly, either by forming new social support networks or expanding existing ones. This may be because they are shy or have poor social skills, or because relocating to a new job or home has taken them away from friends and family.

Psychologists, from the Universities of Southampton and Sun Yat-Sen University, in Guangzhou, China, conducted four diverse studies to test whether nostalgia could combat the effects of loneliness in people from different walks of life, including schoolchildren, college students and factory workers.

One study involved a group of migrant children between nine and 15 years of age who had moved with their parents from rural areas to the city of Guangzhou. The psychologists assessed how lonely they felt, how nostalgic they were for the past, and how strong they felt their own support networks to be.

The results showed that, while the loneliest children felt there was a lack of social support, they were also the most nostalgic for the past. This in turn increased their perceptions of social support, making them feel less lonely.

Psychologist Dr Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton explains: "Our findings show that loneliness affects perceived social support in two distinct ways. First, the direct effect of loneliness is to reduce perceived social support, so that the lonelier a person feels, the less social support they perceive for themselves.

"But paradoxically, loneliness may also have an indirect effect by increasing perceived social support via nostalgia: the lonelier someone feels, the more nostalgic they become, and the more social support they may then perceive they have."

Tim continues: "Our findings show that nostalgia is a psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health. It strengthens feelings of social connectedness and belongingness, partially improving the harmful repercussions of loneliness. Our research is an initial step towards establishing nostalgia as a potent coping mechanism in situations of self-threat and social threat. The past, when appropriately harnessed, can strengthen psychological resistance to the vicissitudes of life."

Further, the researchers found a connection between nostalgia and emotional resilience, with the restorative function of nostalgia being particularly marked among highly resilient individuals who are able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. When lonely, these people report high levels of nostalgia.

The researchers say their findings have implications in a number of areas, including for clinical psychology, where nostalgia could be used as a tool in cognitive therapy, training individuals to benefit from the restorative function of nostalgia when actual social support is lacking or perceived as lacking.

Sue Wilson | alfa
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