As C. S. Lewis once wrote, each season “is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.” These words seem fitting for this time of year. We all relish the timeworn rituals: the tree trimmings, the lights, the carols. Radio stations now rush to switch to Christmas songs days before Thanksgiving even arrives, knowing that as many as double the listeners will faithfully tune in for a dose of holiday cheer. It’s called “the most wonderful time of the year” for a reason.
While the fittingness of jumping the gun on holidays is much debated, research suggests that all this indulging in holiday cheer is good for us. Indeed, even for those for whom holidays can be an especially difficult time, due to the loss of a loved one or some other stressor, Yuletide traditions are good for people’s overall well-being, in great part due to nostalgia.
“People feel more nostalgic during the holidays because many memories are reawakened and relationships renewed,” says Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY, and expert on nostalgia. “Holidays remind us of special times and help us keep track of what has changed and what has remained the same in our lives—and in ourselves.”
While nostalgia can be bittersweet, recent research attests to the psychological benefits of nostalgia, even through grief. “Nostalgic memories can help someone who is away from home or someone who is mourning the death of a family member by reminding us that the bonds we share with those we love survive physical separation,” Batcho says. “Nostalgia can strengthen a sense of social connectedness by helping us appreciate what we have meant to others as well as what others have meant to us.”
This phenomenon of adding meaning to our lives was examined by John Tierney at the New York Times, who found that nostalgia eases anxiety and loneliness; even when we’re thinking of lost loved ones, nostalgia increases our sense of belonging, reminding us of our relationships with others, and helps us appreciate our experiences as meaningful.
In essence, looking back at fond memories actually helps people look to the future with greater anticipation and hope. People look forward to traditions by recalling positive experiences of traditions from years past, according to a study on anticipation. “The enjoyment people glean from anticipation might also be an important component of life satisfaction: One’s satisfaction with life is influenced both by looking backward and by looking forward,” the researchers say.
The moments we tend to remember and anticipate most about the season—the gift giving, the social events, the family time—all have the potential to bring us good tidings.
Perhaps more than any other time of year, this season reminds us of our blessings. In fact, people who count their blessings are more content with their lives. A grateful outlook can improve our health and even our relationships. The old adage holds true: When you give, you really receive.
Likewise, as the holidays bring people together time and again, opportunities for gathering promote our well-being. Maintaining relationships benefits our health as much as healthy eating habits, good sleep, and not smoking, the Harvard Women’s Health Watch says. Close relationships may even lower the risk of heart disease and dementia. Hence their recommendation: “During this busy season, take time to foster your most meaningful relationships. Choose activities that are most likely to bring joy to you and the people you care about.”
Here’s to a holiday season of healthy nostalgia and gratitude to offset whatever stressors the commercialized world brings jingling in. Lord knows we need it.
Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia