Mad Men on the Power of Nostalgia

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The week, AMC’s juggernaut Mad Men ends its eight-year reign over cable television. No longer will we have our window into 1960s America and the salacious happenings at Sterling Cooper advertising agency. Since its debut, Mad Men has received multiple awards (Emmys, Golden Globes, Writes Guild) and critical acclaim for it’s acting, writing, and directing. The show also stands out for its nostalgia-inducing historical authenticity.

There is always a certain amount of nostalgia associated with watching a period-based program from earlier in our life. It reminds us of a simpler, better time. Was it really simpler and better? Probably not, but we were younger, less experienced, and not yet cynical so it feels that way.

In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone… It let’s us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.” – Don Draper

Musing over the past was not always so acceptable. In 1688 a Swiss doctor defined nostalgia as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” Prevalent in soldiers far from home, it was tied to damaged ear drums and brain cells. Two hundred years later, nostalgia was classified as “immigrant psychosis,” based in melancholia and repressive compulsive disorder.

Nowadays, nostalgia is commonplace. We often think back to past events with fondness, lacking any concern that it may be an indicator of our negative mental well-being. Nostalgia is one of the reasons Mad Men is so great. It’s why we watch commentary shows like I Love the 80s. It’s why we revel in “retro” fashion. And it is why you can begin an engaging conversation with, “Do you remember when…?” With such predilections, the benefits of incorporating nostalgia into the workplace cannot be overlooked.

Reminiscence can motivate you. It can give you a sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose—instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life. – Fred Bryant, psychology professor at Loyola University

If you are trying to engage your team, have you considered talking about the good ol’ days? Researcher Tim Wildschut found that nostalgia neutralizes feelings of purposelessness and misalignment, two factors directly correlating with employee disengagement. He called this the “as if” loop where your mind can affect your perceived body state.

What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity in the past. It is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states. It serves to promote emotional equilibrium, homeostasis. – Tim Wildschut, senior researcher from Utrecht in the Netherlands

Psychologist Fred Bryant found that simply thinking of positive memories for twenty minutes makes people more cheerful and happier. Nostalgia has been linked to higher self-esteem, enhanced problem solving skills, heightened social support, closer relationships, and a more positive overall mood. Individuals prone to nostalgia also report being less anxious, depressed, and lonely.

Nostalgia…made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward. – Constantine Sedikides, psychology professor at University of Southampton

Want to induce a bit of nostalgia? Consider these six tips:

  • Reminisce with others. It strengthens relationships and brings the team together. Talk about the people who are no longer working there and what they meant to you. You can also retell “war stories” of those times when everything went wrong and how the team got through it.
  • Do it verbally. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky found that people who replay their happiest moments in their heads experienced greater well-being than those who wrote it down. Interesting note: While this is true for happy nostalgia, reflecting about unpleasant experiences seems to re-traumatize, while writing helps get past the trauma.
  • Don’t rely on props. Mental imagery produces greater happiness than simply looking at old photographs.
  • Avoid rumination and counterfactual thinking. For some, nostalgia triggers painful memories. This can be mitigated by focusing less on “how much better it used to be” (i.e., comparing the past with the present), and more on how the experience enriched you and the team – lesson learned, positive outcomes, etc.
  • Tie smells into experiences. In studying the neuropsychiatric effects on nostalgia, Alan Hirsch found that odors evoke more powerful reactions than the other senses.
  • Crank down the air conditioning. Wildschut’s research showed that people were more likely to generate nostalgic emotions in a cold room versus a warmer one.

On Mad Men, Don Draper used nostalgia to market his products. He played off the public’s memories to create a link between what they loved and what he wanted them to buy. When you take your team on a walk through memory lane, consider being more sincere than Don. Utilize nostalgia to motivate, engage, and unite the team. It will go a long way.

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