As adults age the use and allocation of their cognitive resources shifts (Mathers & Carstensen, 2005). Motivation also plays a key role in this. Older adults have higher motivation to pay attention to and focus on emotional material, therefore more resources are placed on emotional based goals (Mathers & Carstensen, 2005). Older people maximize social and emotional gains by putting emphasis on emotional meaning rather than knowledge acquisition (Carstensen, Isaacowitz & Charles, 1999). One key source of emotional material that older adults have is their vast nostalgic memories, many of which are personal, autobiographic memories (Hepper et al.
Focusing on emotional goals influences how emotional material is encoded and remembered during the emotion regulation process, so that it can be beneficial for upholding and enhancing future wellbeing (Mathers & Carstensen, 2005). According to self-report data, in different areas such as finances, conflicts seem to be less challenging for older aged couples (Carstensen, Gottman & Levenson, 1995). This may be due to their ability to focus on positives learnt during conflicts as well as their use of both emotion and problem-based strategies when challenges arise (Blanchard-Fields, Chen, & Norris, 1997).
When recalling past events, older adults described a larger number of positive feelings even when they were recalling negative events. They also used positive reappraisal as a coping mechanism to deal with stressful events (Mathers & Carstensen, 2005). Again, however, this is self- report data so may not give an accurate picture.
Nostalgia and reminiscing are important as they have therapeutic applications. Older adults have been found to experience a greater amount of positive emotions when reminiscing on past events (Pasupathi & Carstensen, 2003).
Reminiscence has been used as an element of therapy when treating depression. However, its success appears quite inconsistent. Additional research could try to deepen understanding of reminiscing and its underlying mechanisms in order to use it effectively in treatment (Bohlmeijer, Smit, & Cuipers, 2003). It is also important to remember that nostalgia is only linked to wellbeing, it doesn’t instantly cause people’s wellbeing to improve and is only one factor influencing wellbeing (Hepper et al., 2019). It also cannot be seen as a quick fix in terms of treating depression.
Although younger adults seem to regulate emotions differently, a few studies have investigated perceived endings such as graduation. When limited time is perceived, young adults seem to mirror older adults in relation to their socioemotional choices. Research has been conducted by Hepper et al (2019) with students nearing the end of their time at university, where perceived limited time was manipulated, and nostalgia induced. Experimenters studied the associations between nostalgia and perceived limited time. They measured nostalgia using the The Nostalgia Inventory (NI; Batcho, 1995) and wellbeing using Ryff’s (1989) 84-item wellbeing scale. Nostalgia was produced by getting participants to recall a nostalgic event and perceived limited time was manipulated by making university students aware that their time left at university was coming to an abrupt end (Hepper et al., 2019).
It was found that nostalgia weakened the effect of limited time on wellbeing. Nostalgia can be a useful tool when time is limited and can help to maintain wellbeing. In a study conducted by Hepper et al (2019), students who recalled a nostalgic memory reported higher wellbeing in the limited time condition compared to the control condition. They reported significantly higher wellbeing in terms of environmental mastery, purpose in life and self-acceptance. However, nostalgia may be more beneficial for older adults, because it uses internal resources that an older person can access at any given time (Hepper et al., 2019). This may be predominantly useful when opportunities for social interaction are not readily available. Social support is more easily accessible for students, for example, who come into contact with many other individuals during their day. It would be interesting to investigate both the different motives for and the different functions of nostalgia at different ages, as well as study the link between these time perspective and transition periods (Hepper et al., 2019).
Undoubtedly, wellbeing is a complex process at all ages. However, it is clear that the wellbeing of older adult’s is extremely complex. Their experiences often encompass more mixed emotions than younger adults, (Carstensen et al., 2000), hence their emotion regulation is paramount. They spend a large amount of time considering positive features rather than negative ones when making choices, for example, deciding whether to buy a car or not (Mathers & Carstensen, 2005).
However, it may not just be a case of them focusing on positive over negative factors, but focusing on achieving a meaningful life (Keyes, Schmotkin & Ryff, 2002). However, a meaningful life may mean different things to different people, so how do we determine if they are focusing on a meaningful life? Furthermore, older people seem to focus more on the present than the future and are less concerned about the more distant future (Fingerman & Perlmutier, 1995). They do not tend to spend time dwelling on past events. They try to live in the present and focus their attention and thoughts on the here and now. Their goals tend to be for present rather than future events or challenges (Fingerman & Perlmutier, 1995).
However, focusing on a meaningful life and the present definitely does not prevent older people from experiencing inevitable negative events. When they experience negative events, or perceive limited time, nostalgia can be used to defend wellbeing and bounce back from negative events. (Routledge, Wildschut, Sedikides & Juhl, 2013).
Nostalgia has been found to alleviate threats and protect wellbeing during adulthood when time perception varies. “High-nostalgic individuals showed a maintenance or increase in psychological wellbeing with age, whereas low-nostalgic individuals did not.” (Hepper et al., 2019, p.1). Wellbeing decreased when a limited time perspective was induced in young adults who recalled an ordinary autobiographical memory, but this did not occur within those who recalled a nostalgic memory (Hepper et al., 2019). Nostalgia is a useful tool in managing emotions and research suggests that entering into a nostalgic state has psychological benefits (Routledge et al., 2013) and can have a significant effect on wellbeing.
However, interestingly age is not necessarily associated with nostalgia proneness. It is not as clear cut as the older you get, the higher your nostalgia proneness. Nostalgia proneness is widespread throughout the adult lifespan as well as in both genders. It is particularly high in both younger and older adults and during transition periods (Sedikides, Wildschut, Routledge, & Arndt, 2015). Such as the end of university period and retirement. However, it varies greatly between individuals. Many studies talk about high and low nostalgic people, but it is important to note that there is a continuum and not just two distinct categories.