Sentimentality is the state or condition of experiencing high emotionality when thinking about a person, place, time, or experience. This concept is commonly associated with feelings such as love, sadness, and tenderness. Sentimentality can be thought of as a state in that most people have experiences from time to time that make them feel sentimental. However, sentimentality is also trait-like. That is, individuals differ in the extent to which they tend to be sentimental. Some people are more chronically prone to sentimental feelings whereas other feel sentimental infrequently.
Sentimentality is regarded as a mostly positive trait that contributes to interpersonal warmth, as well as success in connecting with others. However, more broadly sentimentality is an adaptive behavioral tendency that improves well-being and helps people cope with psychological threats. The current entry begins by discussing sentimentality as a component of interpersonal warmth. After establishing the role of sentimentality in interpersonal warmth, research on the social and broader well-being benefits of nostalgia (a sentimental longing for the past) will be reviewed.
The Social Implications of Sentimentality
As a trait, sentimentality is a component of a prosocial personality style. Specifically, five-factor personality models consider sentimentality to be a component of agreeableness, a personality trait of being friendly, likable, and concerned with interpersonal harmony (Saucier and Goldberg 1996). Similarly, the HEXACO model of personality considers sentimentality as the tendency to form and maintain strong emotional bonds, which is predictive of empathic concern and emotional attachment to other people (Ashton et al. 2014).
Sentimentality is most commonly associated with the experience of nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past. To feel nostalgic is to have a generally positive (i.e., warm) feeling with perhaps a tinge of negative affect (i.e., longing, sadness) about an experience from one’s past (Wildschut et al. 2006). Nostalgizing involves reflecting on a cherished memory from the past that is typically social in nature and/or from childhood (Wildschut et al. 2006). Most people report regularly experiencing the sentimental state of nostalgia, and this is the case across adult age groups and cultures (Wildschut et al. 2006; Zhou et al. 2008).
Nostalgia is also conceptualized as a trait. That is, individuals vary in the sentimental emotion of nostalgia. This individual difference is characterized both by the frequency of experiencing nostalgia and by the extent to which nostalgia is personally valued. Highly nostalgic individuals tend to feel nostalgic quite frequently (sometimes multiple times per day) and also report highly valuing or finding important their nostalgic feelings (Routledge et al. 2008).
Research indicates that nostalgizing increases a sense of feeling loved by, supported by, and connected with other people (Wildschut et al. 2006). Moreover, nostalgia gives people the confidence and motivation to pursue social goals of establishing and maintaining social bonds (Abeyta et al. 2015). Finally, nostalgia has been found to increase prosocial behaviors and intentions, such as donating to charity and helping others (Zhou et al. 2012). At the trait level, the need for social belonging has been found to predict the tendency to engage in nostalgic reflection, and this sentimental proclivity is in turn associated with a greater sense of social support (Zhou et al. 2008). In sum, research on nostalgia indicates that sentimentality fosters a sense of social belonging and leads to interpersonal and prosocial behaviors.
The Broader Implications of Sentimentality
Sentimentality also has broader implications for psychological well-being. Research on nostalgia, for example, indicates that sentimentality aids in maintaining psychological equanimity and generally promotes well-being. In particular, this research indicates that individuals high in trait nostalgia are better able to cope with psychological threats (e.g., Routledge et al. 2008). These highly sentimental individuals are better able to cope with threats to well-being because they recruit nostalgia to regulate distress. Specifically, research has found that threats to one’s sense of self (Sedikides et al. 2015) and one’s sense of meaning in life (Routledge et al. 2011) trigger nostalgia. Nostalgia in turn bolsters well-being. For example, nostalgic reflection has been found to bolster one’s sense of self-worth and self-continuity (Sedikides et al. 2015; Wildschut et al. 2006), foster a sense of meaning in life (Routledge et al. 2011), and increase a general sense of optimism (Cheung et al. 2013). Finally, sentimentality appears to be predictive of well-being because of the social benefits associated with it. Specifically, research indicates that nostalgia’s capacity to promote meaning in life (Routledge et al. 2011), increase self-esteem, and generate optimism (Cheung et al. 2013) is mediated by social connectedness.
Sentimentality is the tendency to experience high emotionality when being reminded of a person, experience, or location. Sentimentality is thought to be an important trait for interpersonal harmony that predicts empathic response to others and emotional attachment to others. Sentimentality is commonly associated with the experience of nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past. Research on nostalgia suggests that feeling sentimental plays a role maintaining social belonging and promoting prosocial behaviors and interpersonal pursuits of developing and sustaining social bonds. Finally, research on nostalgia indicates that the social benefits associated with sentimentality have broad implications for psychological well-being.