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Psychologists consider nostalgia a complex emotion and it may have both benefits and risks.

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You know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you boot up an old 8-bit Nintendo game like Legend of Zelda, or Super Mario 3? Or maybe when you think back to celebrating the holidays as a kid, something magical just seems to be missing now.

That's nostalgia: a bittersweet longing to return to something in your past. We're still learning exactly how nostalgia works and why it could be useful, but researchers do have a few ideas -- including some things you should watch out for. Psychologists consider nostalgia a complex emotion, which means it has what's called positive and negative valence.

Basically, it's good and bad feelings wrapped up all in once. Unlike joy or sadness, which are pretty straightforward, nostalgia has all the happiness of a fond memory, along with the sad realization that you might never get to experience that thing again. A lot of what we know about nostalgia comes from the University of Southampton in England, where they did a bunch of different studies about nostalgia in 2006.

In two experiments with a few dozen subjects each, researchers found that making people feel lonely or sad made them significantly more likely to get all nostalgic than people who felt cheerful or neutral, even if they weren't asked about their memories. The experiments were too small to draw broad conclusions, but the researchers proposed that nostalgia could exist to help us deal with negative emotions. Specifically, since they noticed from those experiments that lonely people often became nostalgic, they thought nostalgia could be used to form social bonds, improve self-esteem, or improve your mood -- although there could be other benefits, too.

To test this out, they conducted a few slightly larger studies, where 50 to 120 people were either asked to think about something nostalgic from their past or to just think about something ordinary they did that week, like picking up their dry cleaning. Then they did some surveys. According to the surveys, the people who'd felt nostalgic had improved moods and self-esteem, and they also felt less anxious about their relationships and more bonded with people in general.

Which is cool! But the people in these studies weren't necessarily feeling sad or lonely, so the researchers also wanted to figure out if nostalgia could protect you from being in a bad mood, even when you think about really upsetting things -- like your own death. And the answer was essentially yes. In an experiment, 75 people wrote about their own deaths, and then half of those people thought about something nostalgic.

Afterwards, all the participants did a word completion task, where they were asked to complete different words based on their first few letters. So, if they were given a six-letter word starting with C-O-F-F, they might say the word was coffin if they were still thinking about death, or coffee, which is just pretty neutral. The people who thought about dying but didn't get nostalgic answered with way more death-related words, while the nostalgic people gave more neutral answers, almost as if they'd never thought about death in the first place.

The researchers think that could mean nostalgia has even more benefits than just social bonding or a better mood -- it could also remind us about what we find meaningful in life and help us be less concerned about our lives ending. These studies were pretty limited, though, and there's still a lot we don't know about nostalgia. For example, since most of the subjects were young university students, we don't know if older people experience the feeling the same way.

Still, these studies support the idea that nostalgia has a purpose: If you're feeling down, it might cheer you up by helping you feel closer to people and focus on the things that are important to you. But there are also some less-helpful side effects. For one thing, nostalgia can screw with your memory a bit.

When people are asked to rate TV shows from different decades, they generally say that shows from the past are better than the ones today, even when they're reminded of current. TV shows they like just as much or even more. It's like they just forget all the really, really bad TV that used to be out there.

People also tend to rate the movies from the year they graduated high school as better than what's currently being made, no matter how old they are. Plus, nostalgia can make you part with your cash more easily, which advertisers knew long before scientists started studying it. There's a reason why it was basically impossible to get your hands on an NES Classic.

Studies have shown that nostalgia in ads makes you willing to pay more for the same product, or even just give your money away. Researchers think that might be because nostalgia makes you feel more connected to people, which some studies have shown could make money seem less important. But we'll have to do more research to figure out why that is.

So, nostalgia might cheer you up and make you feel closer to the people around you. But it's not all sugar cookies and Triforces. This episode was made possible by Squarespace which is a company that makes it really easy to create a custom, professional, dynamic website that works on both mobile and desktop.

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