The Surprising Power of Nostalgia at Work

By Matt Dallisson, 29/04/2021

Many people assume that nostalgia is purely entertainment, a feeling individuals enjoy because it takes them back to the more carefree days of their youth. Some view it as maladaptive fixation on the past, perhaps indicating a fear of change. I’ve heard business analysts and leaders argue that, although nostalgia may help some companies sell consumers a range of products, it’s ultimately bad for business and the economy. They imagine that by keeping people focused on the past, nostalgia undermines innovation, creativity, and ultimately progress.

From that perspective, there’s little reason for managers to view nostalgia as having value within their organizations. However, a growing body of research reveals that it’s an important psychological resource that helps individuals cope with life’s stressors, build strong relationships, find and maintain meaning in life, and become more creative and inspired. I’ve been conducting research on the psychology of nostalgia for almost 20 years. Based on what I’ve learned, I believe managers can use the power of nostalgia to help their organizations thrive.

Nostalgia Is a Psychological Resource

First, managers need to understand how nostalgia actually works. When people engage in nostalgia, they’re accessing personally meaningful autobiographical events typically shared with family, friends, and other close connections. It isn’t just a happy trip down memory lane — in fact, nostalgic reflection often involves both negative and positive emotional states. Critically, it tends to follow a redemptive sequence in which negative feelings such as longing and loss give way to positive feelings such as happiness, social connectedness, gratitude, and hope. In other words, nostalgia is bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter.

Nostalgia can be triggered by explicit reminders of the past, such as running into an old friend or hearing music from one’s youth, but people also often become nostalgic when they’re feeling down or distressed in some way. Common psychological triggers of nostalgia include feelings of sadness, loneliness, meaninglessness, uncertainty, and boredom.

These negative psychological states increase nostalgia because nostalgia is restorative. After conducting dozens of studies using diverse methods ranging from qualitative text analysis, self-report surveys, and behavioral and neuroscientific experiments, my colleagues and I have concluded that nostalgia is best described as a self-regulatory existential resource that people naturally and frequently use to navigate stress and uncertainty and find the motivation needed to move forward with purpose and focus. The impact of nostalgia on meaning is particularly important because meaning in life has great motivational power. Research finds that nostalgia motivates the pursuit of important life goals by increasing that sense of meaning.

Humans are an existential species. To flourish, we need to make meaningful social connections and feel like we’re contributing to the world in a way that matters. Nostalgia serves these existential endeavors. Here are three reasons for managers to bring this adaptive feature of human psychology into their organizations — and ways to do it.

1. Nostalgia can help build strong relationships and teams

Social bonds are a central feature of nostalgia. Most nostalgic memories involve other people, and when individuals reflect on these memories, they feel more socially connected and supported. Managers can take advantage of nostalgia’s social nature to promote strong relationships and teams. Encouraging employees to share nostalgic stories with team members may help them build deeper connections because nostalgia orients people toward social goals. For example, in one set of studies my colleagues and I conducted, we found that having research participants spend a few minutes reflecting on a nostalgic memory (compared to an ordinary autobiographical memory, like grocery shopping or driving to work) increased their desire to pursue social goals such as forming deep relationships and made them more confident that they could successfully achieve those goals. They also became more confident that they could overcome social conflicts.

We also observed that when people are experiencing higher levels of nostalgia, they’re more interested in working on tasks with others, and nostalgia has been shown to increase empathy for others and prosocial behavior in the forms of volunteering and charitable donations. Research also finds that, when people are part of a group, nostalgia for an event shared within it makes people more committed to the group.

Nostalgia brings the social self online. It increases social agency and directs that agency toward helping others and strengthening social and group bonds. Given the importance of positive relationships and effective teams for both the health of individual employees and the organization, managers should explore ways to incorporate nostalgia into team-building activities, as well as social events like workplace celebrations and retreats. For example, create a retro music playlist by asking employees to submit nostalgia-themed song requests. This will give employees of different ages and with different experiences the opportunity to revisit their own nostalgic memories, which energizes the desire to connect with others. It will also inspire them to share these memories with others, which helps build deeper connections and increase nostalgia in others. Indeed, research finds that exposure to other people’s nostalgic memories increases one’s own nostalgia and all the associated psychological benefits — in other words, nostalgia is contagious.

2. Nostalgia can help make work feel meaningful and reduce turnover

As an existential resource, nostalgia helps people maintain and enhance meaning in the present — when they reflect on past meaningful experiences, they become motivated to prioritize meaning in the present. Managers can tap into this existential resource to help employees find meaning at work. This may be particularly useful for those experiencing burnout. A series of studies found that when workers were prompted to reflect on experiences within their organization that made them nostalgic (organizational nostalgia), they subsequently reported a greater sense of meaning at work and lower turnover intentions. These effects were most pronounced among employees reporting high levels of burnout.

By encouraging employees to revisit meaningful memories created within the organization, managers can help the ones experiencing stress and burnout reconnect with what made their jobs meaningful in the past, which can provide guidance for how to restore meaning at work in the present. Developing organizational social rituals and traditions can help create organizational nostalgia in the first place — it’s an investment in the future. For example, organizations could hold monthly game nights, potluck dinners, movie screenings, book clubs, or other events that provide employees the opportunity to form meaningful social memories shared with other members of the organization. When an organization is undergoing major changes that cause anxiety, interpersonal conflict, or other negative experiences, organizational nostalgia may prove to be a vital resource.

3. Nostalgia can help organizations be more creative and inspired

Managers looking to cultivate outside-the-box thinking can also take advantage of nostalgia. A workplace that encourages employees to both share nostalgic memories and make new ones with their coworkers primes the pump of creativity. People are more likely to feel comfortable taking risks and exploring new ideas when they feel socially supported, energized, and confident. Nostalgia generates these states and can thus offer a way to orient employees toward creative thinking and problem-solving.

Across three studies, researchers found that having individuals spend several minutes writing about a nostalgic memory made them feel more open-minded and creative, and critically, made them produce more creative content (as judged by independent evaluators). In addition, our research shows that nostalgia makes people feel more inspired.

While on the subject of creativity, it’s worth noting that there is no single right way of inducing nostalgia. Our studies as well as those conducted by other research teams have utilized diverse nostalgia prompts, such as having people write about a nostalgic memory, read accounts of other people’s nostalgic memories, read song lyrics that make them nostalgic, listen to nostalgic music, watch nostalgic music videos, look at old photographs, visit nostalgia-themed websites, create scrapbooks, and engage in activities using augmented reality technology.

Managers should look for opportunities to introduce nostalgia in ways they believe will best fit their organizational environment and culture. What’s most important is that managers appreciate that meaningfully connecting the present to the past via nostalgia can help them and their employees have the mindset and motivation needed to productively work toward future-oriented individual and organizational goals.

This content was originally published here.

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