A new study suggests how neurotics think back on the good and bad times of life.
When you think back on the times of your life, you most likely alternate between those that were good and those that weren’t. To comfort yourself when you’re feeling down, chances are you’ll look back on the good times to try to put the focus either on those pleasant experiences or on how you were able to overcome the bad times that tested your resilience.
Whatever bad times you had in the past, there is a good chance that many of them don’t even come close to what you’re going through now. As with other large-scale traumatic events, COVID-19 is putting a strain on the adaptive abilities of millions of people. If you’re lucky, the worst of these strains involves a few semi-minor inconveniences such as not being able to go out with friends, take in a ball game or movie, or go shopping whenever you feel like it. Clearly, the worst situations involve the physical aspects of the illness threatening, or taking, the life of family. You may also face the social and economic impacts of losing your job or delaying your schooling. If you’re a healthcare worker, being on the frontlines of the illness brings its own unique set of challenges.
With all that you’re experiencing now, will there ever be a time that you can look back on 2020 without reliving the worst parts of it? How will 2020 go down in your personal history book? New research by Saarland University’s Julius Frankenbach and colleagues (2020) offers some suggestion of how your future self may remember the present and whether nostalgia for the current times will be possible.
Interestingly, as the German researchers note, nostalgia was first defined by the Greeks as a negative emotion derived from the words “nostos” (homecoming) and “álgos,” (pain). However, contemporary psychologists see nostalgia “as a useful resource that individuals recruit to counter adversity.” If so, then this revamped view of nostalgia would suggest that, as with other past painful events in your life, you could theoretically be able to look back on 2020 by giving yourself a virtual pat on the back for having made it through this unusually difficult year.
Indeed, according to previous research cited by Frankenbach and his coauthors, “nostalgia inductions” that trigger thoughts about the past can actually bolster people’s positive emotions. Contrary to its Greek meaning, furthermore, people who delve into past experience often focus on what went right instead of what went wrong.
There are exceptions, however, to this growth-enhancing use of nostalgia. The bittersweet nature of nostalgia, with its potential to unleash negative memories of the past, means that people high in neuroticism should, as Frankenbach et al. point out, pull out the negatively valenced memories of their past when they dwell on it. Even though they may objectively have had the same ratio of positive to negative events in their lives, the highly neurotic may selectively access the ones that are inherently more painful. In the process, they could simultaneously yearn for the past, wishing they could return to an earlier time.
Neuroticism, by its very definition, involves a tendency toward habitually high levels of worrying with, as the authors define it, a “tendency to engage repetitively and persistently in mental problem solving of uncertain or unresolved difficulties or challenges.” People high in neuroticism, furthermore, experience unusually high levels of vulnerability to stress.
With this background in mind, when people high in neuroticism look back on 2020, they should be particularly likely to wish they could be back in 2019, before their lives were turned upside down by the pandemic. People low in neuroticism, by contrast, would eventually be able to think back on the turmoil caused by the pandemic and regard it as the ultimate test of their inner strength. They might even see themselves as comparable to the “Greatest Generation,” who survived World War II, in defining themselves as the “COVID Generation.” SOURCE