What does nostalgic mean?

In this brief guide we are going to answer the question ‘’What does nostalgic mean?’’ we will explain what homesickness is, what causes it, and how it affects our mental health.

What does nostalgic mean?

Nostalgic means something that implies nostalgia. Nostalgia refers to a feeling of sadness that can occur at any time in human life. In turn, memories are the main activator of this emotion, since when thinking about the past in relation to a situation that had been lived, its extinction generates this nostalgia.

Indeed, the feeling of missing or longing (in a melancholic way) for some specific experience, object or person from the past defines nostalgia.

Nostalgia can also be presented by something not lived, that is, the desire or longing to experience certain situations, as happens when visualizing a fragment of a movie, a fantasy story or love story, and even a song capable of transporting to a specific time, triggering longed and invented images, creating a past that did not happen, but that does not necessarily represent a hallucination or delirium.

What is Nostalgia?

In a literal sense, nostalgia, a word that comes from the Greek terms nostos – ‘return’, ‘going home’ – and algos – ‘pain’ -, is the suffering caused by the unfulfilled desire to return home. The first case in literature is found in Homer’s Odyssey, which narrates the return of Ulysses to Ithaca after the Trojan War. In canto X, the ingenious hero informs his crew that Circe, the sorceress goddess, does not allow them to fulfil their purpose.

This feeling was first explicitly described in 1688, when the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer used the term to describe the homesickness that plagued his country’s soldiers. The physical and psychological symptoms they suffered from included tachycardia, crying fits, insomnia and fear; hence Hofer defined it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic causes”.

This theory was questioned even then by other specialists, who attributed the affliction of the Helvetic soldiers to changes in atmospheric pressure after being moved from their mountain villages to the plains. Some even speculated that the incessant cowbell sound of the cows in the Alps damaged the eardrums and brains of these troubled men.

Until the 19th century, nostalgia was always interpreted, along the lines of the Swiss physician, as a brain ailment.

From then on, it came to be described as a pathological form of melancholy or as a kind of psychosis of the immigrant, i.e. a psychic disorder that causes an indomitable sadness and disturbs the thoughts of those who wish to return home after a period of absence.

These theories were maintained until 1979, when the American sociologist Fred Davis (1925-1993) described it as a sentimental longing for people, places or situations that made us happy in the past. He thus established the modern definition of the concept. Since then, many scientific studies have tried to demonstrate that, far from being a negative state of mind, it produces well-being and helps to give meaning to our lives.

What are the differences between nostalgia, sadness and depression?

In order to understand the differences, we will begin by defining each concept and understanding where it comes from and how it manifests itself.

Nostalgia is a kind of feeling associated with sadness that can happen at any time in life but is associated with a memory of the past. Something that already was but that perhaps remained unfinished, that left a wound or that could not be resolved in a healthy and conscious way. It has to do with distance, absence, loss, loneliness and longing.

Sadness is a state of mind, which is related to an event that triggers it.

When these periods become continuous, the brain stops producing serotonin at a level that is considered normal or adequate. All this is given from our brain, which, in situations of stress, anxiety, fear or anguish can alter its production of neurotransmitters, directly affecting our behavior and making evident a state that is not healthy.

Depression is considered a mood disorder.

It is usually deeper and less easy to control than sadness, so its follow-up and subsequent treatment must be accompanied by a professional diagnosis. It is limited by an inability to reason about its causes and is closely associated with a period of self-absorption or abstraction from the immediate group.

Psychological benefits of nostalgia

Psychologists point out that when nostalgia is perceived in a balanced way in our lives, it can have a positive function on our psyche. So much so, that they point out the following benefits of feeling nostalgia for the past.

1. It is a longing for our past self.

Nostalgic thoughts not only suggest the meaning of longing for a time or place, they actually imply a feeling of having left our past self behind. That is, we long to feel or be the version of ourselves that we were at the time we remember.

Therefore, nostalgia can be a sign of what we really want in our lives. So much so that on many occasions if we use it to our advantage, it can be a very useful tool for our emotional well-being.

2. They connect us with what we long for.

When a person has a particular object or item from the past that makes them feel nostalgic, it serves as a transition. This means that it helps us feel comfortable and secure as it represents a link between now and a place or time when we felt good in every way.

Thanks to this transition that allows us to feel nostalgia, we can connect with ourselves and with that effective state we long for. Therefore, these types of nostalgic feelings are very useful to combat or regulate negative emotions that come from sadness, loneliness, fear or even stress.

3. Combats loneliness

According to studies conducted by Dr. Wildschut, it was found that people tend to seek nostalgia for their past memories when they feel a negative affection towards them, more specifically in the face of a feeling of loneliness. So much so that on many occasions we resort to these nostalgic moments in order to feel more connected to others.

4. It increases our self-esteem

Although nostalgia usually evokes sad or longing feelings, the reality is that feeling it means working to improve our mood and generate a positive effect by strengthening our social ties and increasing our self-esteem. This happens because our present self, which feels lonely, remembers our past self that was connected to the world around him/her. Nostalgia combats the feelings of helplessness that we may feel in times of stress or social isolation.

5. It helps us find meaning in our lives

Another study conducted by Dr. Routledge showed that through nostalgia for the past people can find their meaning in life as they feel more social connection with others. Therefore, it is beneficial to end up perceiving our meaning and therefore feel useful towards others.


Among the multiple experiences that our emotional world allows us is the feeling of nostalgia. An impossible but longed-for journey into our past.

Suddenly, one feels invaded by images, resonances, words or sensations of yesterday. One realizes that it is not a mere exercise of the memory, since, accompanying those traces of lived life, vague emotions appear that seem to settle definitively inside us. 

It happens then that those vague emotions awaken an enormous feeling that covers our whole being with its presence. It is as if all of a sudden all the past lived was summarized in that bittersweet picture. As if time were stuck with the sole purpose of putting us at the crossroads of being what we can no longer be.

As you can see, the melancholy and nostalgia that invade our mind can benefit our mental health as long as these feelings are experienced in a balanced way. Still, if you feel that you are always in a nostalgic state, it may be advisable to see a professional psychologist, as this may indicate a persistent feeling of emotional distress.

If you have any questions or comments let us know!