Reminiscing about times past can stir up pleasant feelings of nostalgia. But nostalgia is more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling; it can have potent effects in the real world, according to a recent study.

In earlier research, Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, and colleagues found that nostalgia is psychologically important. It boosts self-esteem, provides meaning in life, and strengthens one’s sense of social connectedness. But the researchers also wanted to find out whether nostalgia could promote pro-social behavior.

Zhou and colleagues conducted a series of five experiments designed to discover the effect nostalgia has on charitable giving. In one experiment, the researchers asked Chinese undergraduates to recall a nostalgic event in their lives and then gave them a description of a fictitious charity that helps children orphaned by the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, China. Compared with a group asked to recall an ordinary event in their lives, the nostalgic group was more willing to donate time and money to the charity, even though their nostalgic thoughts had nothing to do with earthquakes or orphans.

The experiments helped to build a compelling case that nostalgia increases charitable intentions, says study co-author Tim Wildschut, a social psychologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

“We showed several times that this effect on charitable intentions flows from an increase in empathy produced by nostalgia,” he says. “We demonstrated that nostalgia not only increases charitable intentions but also increases actual charitable donations.”

Such information could be useful for charities and philanthropic organizations that want to improve the ways in which they reach out to donors.

“The biggest takeaway for me is that organizations need to create the touch points and experiences that are really going to resonate with people from whom they wish to get long-term support,” says Geoffrey Brown, executive director of the Giving Institute, an association for fundraising consulting firms.

“The present findings show that nostalgia does more than just benefit the isolated individual,” Wildschut says. “The benefits generalize to the individuals’ social circle and beyond, to charities benefiting unacquainted others.”

Xinyue Zhou, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, Kan Shi, and Cong Feng, “Nostalgia: The Gift That Keeps on Giving,” Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 2012.

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