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New research reveals the psychological impact of nostalgia on ritual engagement and meaning in life

Rituals, ranging from daily meditations to annual family dinners, play a crucial role in shaping our psychological and social lives. Recent research has identified nostalgia as a powerful motivator for engaging in these rituals. This engagement, in turn, enhances the meaning people ascribe to their lives. Specifically, the studies demonstrate that nostalgia can actively increase participation in rituals, which then contribute to an individual’s sense of having a meaningful life.

Rituals have been recognized for their psychological benefits, including reducing grief and enhancing joy and group cohesion. However, what drives people to participate in rituals, and how these actions influence their lives, has been less understood. Prior research has often focused on how negative emotions, like anxiety, can lead to ritualistic behaviors that help manage these feelings. Unlike these studies, the current research explores how positive feelings like nostalgia can also trigger ritual engagement.

“I am interested in the dynamics of human rituals, perhaps stemming from my early readings and a deep impression left by quotes from ‘The Little Prince.’ That is, ritual is ‘what makes one day different from the other days, one hour different from the other hours,’” said study author Tonglin Jiang, a tenure-track assistant professor at Peking University.

“Previous perspectives on rituals usually focused on regulation, such as regulating emotions, goal-relevant behaviors, and social cohesion. I want to approach rituals from a more daily perspective, viewing them as common practices to mark life events (e.g., graduation ceremonies, birthday parties) and preserve memories.”

“This research is a continuation of our previous work on how nostalgia promotes tradition transfer, which investigated factors that encourage memories to be passed down and preserved through generations,” Jiang said. “This research focuses on the individual level, investigating how nostalgia encourages people to engage in rituals, which are common practices for marking life moments and enshrining cherished memories.”

The researchers conducted a series of five studies to test the connection between nostalgia and ritual engagement using various methods, including surveys, experiments, and longitudinal approaches.

Study 1 was designed as a cross-sectional survey to assess whether nostalgia correlates with ritual engagement among individuals. Researchers recruited 369 participants from the United States through an online platform, but after removing those who failed attention checks, 311 participants remained.

They completed surveys that measured nostalgia using two validated scales—the Southampton Nostalgia Scale and the Nostalgia Prototype Scale—to ensure reliability and to capture different dimensions of nostalgia. Ritual engagement was assessed through a 14-item scale based on typical family and cultural rituals.

The results showed that individuals who reported higher levels of nostalgia also tended to engage more in ritualistic behaviors. This was evident across various types of rituals, suggesting that nostalgia may generally increase the inclination toward ritualistic activities.

In Study 2, the aim was to experimentally determine if inducing nostalgia could influence preferences for ritualistic activities. This study involved 190 participants from a Chinese online platform. Participants were randomly assigned to either a nostalgia-induction group, where they were asked to reflect on a nostalgic event, or a control group that reflected on a mundane event from their past.

After the nostalgia induction, participants were presented with scenarios involving choices between ritualistic and non-ritualistic options in daily activities. Their preferences were then measured, providing data on whether nostalgia could actively sway decisions towards choosing more ritualistic actions.

Participants who were made to feel nostalgic showed a distinct preference for ritualistic options compared to the control group. This experiment demonstrated that nostalgia could shift decision-making in favor of more symbolic and meaningful choices, reinforcing the hypothesis that nostalgia encourages engagement in rituals that are perceived as meaningful.

Study 3 further built on the experimental approach by directly observing ritual engagement after nostalgia was induced. The researchers recruited 300 participants, and after exclusions, 296 remained. Similar to Study 2, participants were divided into a nostalgia or a control group.

After the nostalgia induction, they were given a choice between performing a ritualistic task and a neutral task. The nature of these tasks was such that the ritualistic task involved symbolic actions (writing a note symbolizing the end of the day), whereas the neutral task was mundane (checking the weather).

After inducing nostalgia, participants were more likely to choose a ritualistic task over a neutral one. This finding was significant in demonstrating that nostalgic feelings could translate into actual ritualistic actions, not just preferences.

Study 4 expanded the investigation into a naturalistic setting during the Chinese Spring Festival, employing a longitudinal design. It began with 350 participants, with 252 completing both phases of the study. This study measured nostalgia, ritual engagement intentions, and actual ritual behaviors at two time points: before and during the festival.

The study utilized the earlier validated scales for nostalgia and introduced specific measures for ritual engagement that included both intended and actual behaviors. This allowed researchers to assess not only the immediate effects of nostalgia but also how it influenced ritual engagement over time.

Jiang and her colleagues found that nostalgia not only increased intentions to engage in rituals but also correlated with actual ritual behaviors during the festival. Importantly, nostalgia measured before the festival predicted greater engagement in rituals, which in turn was associated with an enhanced sense of meaning in life. These findings were pivotal in illustrating that nostalgia could have lasting effects on behavior and contribute significantly to life’s meaningfulness through ritual engagement.

The final study, Study 5, aimed to provide a test of whether engaging in rituals can influence perceived meaning in life. It involved 170 participants who were randomly assigned to either engage in a ritualistic activity or a control activity on the Chinese National Day.

The ritualistic activity was designed to be meaningful and involved writing about personal aspirations and reflections on the new month, which was framed as a ritualistic new beginning. The control group wrote about their day in a non-ritualistic manner. This setup tested the direct impact of ritual engagement on enhancing life’s meaning.

Participants who engaged in a designed ritual reported higher levels of life meaning compared to those in the control condition. This experiment confirmed the role of rituals in enriching life’s meaning and provided causal evidence of how structured, meaningful activities can have profound psychological benefits.

“Rituals are not just meaningless, rigid action sequences, or pretentious gestures,” Jiang told PsyPost. “In our daily lives, they often serve as symbolic actions, expressing a profound appreciation for life and serving as a common means of marking significant moments. Perhaps, when one feels a sense of meaninglessness in life, embracing rituals can provide solace and meaning.”

While the studies robustly support the nostalgia-ritual connection, there are still some limitations. For instance, the causality could also operate in reverse; rituals might evoke nostalgic feelings. Additionally, most of the studies involved participants from only two cultural contexts (the U.S. and China), which may not represent global perspectives.

Future research could explore these dynamics over longer periods and in various cultural settings. Researchers might also investigate whether different types of rituals or those conducted in different emotional contexts (e.g., mourning vs. celebration) influence the nostalgia-ritual link.

“Our research focused on common daily rituals and widely accepted traditional rituals. Whether other rituals, such as extreme rituals, would have the same effect is beyond the scope of our study,” Jiang noted. “We will continue to investigate nostalgia from a perspective centered on memory-related emotions, aiming to uncover additional behaviors and downstream consequences it may entail by fostering an appreciation for the value of memories.”

The study was authored by Yige Yin, Tonglin Jiang, Tim Wildschut, and Constantine Sedikides.