There is nothing like the holidays to bring about feelings of nostalgia.
Traditions, memories, music, and more.
It’s what “’Tis the Season” is all about.
“People do become more nostalgic during the holidays. A lot of this has to do with a sense of belongingness, which is very important for human beings,” Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York, told Healthline.
Traditions differ from family to family, or sometimes they are shared by groups of people.
“In America, the White House puts up a Christmas tree every year and everyone feels like they belong,” Batcho said.
Certain traditions connect us to our childhood, adds Batcho.
“But then when we’re parents ourselves, in a way, you want to pass on that feeling and tradition to your children. So you’re giving your child their future nostalgia. And, at the same time, you’re enjoying reliving your own nostalgia,” she said.
A different kind of emotion
Because nostalgia is both an emotion and a thought process, it’s considered a blended emotion and different than other emotions.
For instance, when you’re happy, you can simply be happy, but when you’re nostalgic it involves the cognitive process of remembering, which also has emotions attached to it.
“Think of the term ‘bittersweet.’ Very often you’re remembering sweet instances of your past and the bitter part is knowing that they’re gone and over,” Batcho said.
So does nostalgia keep us stuck in the past?
History would tell us so.
“When I began researching nostalgia in 1994, I first looked at the social sciences literature. What was surprising is that the prevailing attitudes toward nostalgia were negative,” said Batcho.
This stems from history, she notes.
The word nostalgia was coined by a medical doctor in 1688 who was studying military personnel who were homesick and became depressed. The doctor believed you could die from nostalgia.
Fast forward to the time of Freud when psychiatrists were looking at nostalgia as depression. And they believed that people who thought about their past were unable to move forward.
Then, in the middle of the 20th century psychology started looking at nostalgia. At this time, it was still defined as homesickness.
“Today, America is most definitely a future-oriented culture. We love progress. We think science and technology will bring us answers for our most urgent concerns. So even today, you’re going to find that many people define nostalgia as unhealthy,” said Batcho.
Benefits of nostalgia
According to recent research by Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut at the Centre for Research on Self and Identity at the University of Southampton in England, nostalgia is “far from being a feeble escape from the present,” but rather “a source of strength, enabling the individual to face the future.”
She says her research has found many positive effects of nostalgia, including the following:
Bringing about calming feelings
Nostalgia can help people deal with stress and anxiety. “Any change good or bad is very stressful. So what nostalgia enables you to do both emotionally and cognitively is keep track of what has remained stable, giving you some sense of continuity that grounds you,” Batcho said.
Countering negative emotions
For example, loneliness can be associated with sadness. “Today we have so much mobility in our culture — people being far away from people they love — such as a college student going away from home or a military person serving overseas. One thing that has been documented from research is that when you’re nostalgic it can help combat that loneliness and reinstate your sense of connectedness to people you miss,” said Batcho. “So through memories you can relive a lot of the sense of being connected to them.”
Encouraging healthy behaviors
Nostalgia can encourage healthy behaviors. “Childhood is when we were healthiest. By remembering the things we did as a kid, we can reinstate healthy emotions, such as being loved and feeling a sense of security, and also doing activities we did as kids,” Batcho said. “For instance, when the baby boomers started becoming nostalgic, they remembered how much fun they had riding bicycles as kids, so suddenly the sale of bikes boomed and people over the age of 50 started riding bikes and going to the gym.”
Sedikides and Wildschut report that nostalgia also does the following:
strengthens approach orientation
What if your past isn’t pleasant?
Nostalgia can also help people cope with adversity and unhappy memories, says Batcho.
“I found from my research that people who are more nostalgic have healthier coping strategies,” she said. “For example, nostalgic people tend to have better social networks. If they have bad memories to deal with or are currently dealing with an adverse situation, they are more likely to cope by turning to other people for advice or help, and in turn may be encouraged to get counseling or other healthy forms of help.”
When it comes to those who are depressed, Batcho says nostalgia is a double-edged sword.
“For example, people who are refugees and have been forced out of their homeland against their will very often are most depressed because they’ve lost everything. That kind of nostalgia is referred to as pathological and can capture someone in the past,” she said.
“However, when nostalgia is used in a healthy way,” she added, “it can be like a crutch that grounds you in your past while you figure out how to move forward in a new situation. Whether it’s something extreme like a new culture or less extreme like a new job or becoming a parent, it can buy you a little emotional time because it gives you the sense of security to say ‘I know I can do this.’ Then you can plan your future.”
When it comes to the holidays, Batcho says people who have disruptive lives find they can invent new customs which become their new family traditions and help them feel like they belong.
Nostalgia as therapy for the aging
Nostalgia has been used by people with diseases that cause memory confusion or distortion of memories.
Consider the idea that music can activate nostalgia.
“There are neurological studies being done that look at brain processing. Turns out the kinds of nostalgia enabled by music appears to stimulate additional parts of the brain. One of the newer studies suggests that when a person listens to music that makes them feel nostalgic, the rewards and the emotional sensors of the brain are particularly activated and they interconnect with the parts of the brain that store your autobiographical memories, or our life story,” says Batcho.
“While we’re listening to music, it’s activating some of the memories of our past, as well as some really positive feelings that come from the reward center of the brain. Your mood is then elevated.”
Who’s more prone to being nostalgic?
Batcho’s research shows that certain personality traits make people more nostalgic than others.
“People who tend to become nostalgic are not generally happier or sadder than others, and being nostalgic does not correlate with depression or typical mental disorders,” she said.
Being nostalgic does correlate with the following:
Emotionality has to do with how intensely a person feels an emotion. “Nostalgic people have a great capacity for emotions. When they’re sad, they feel quite sad and when they’re happy, they are quite happy,” said Batcho.
Compassion and empathy
Nostalgic people tend to be more compassionate and empathetic. “Part of this has to do with the fact that people who are nostalgic value their relationships. They are people-people. They care about others and are oriented toward others,” explained Batcho.
Curious how nostalgic you are?
Batcho created a free app that measures a person’s tendency toward nostalgia.
By Cathy Cassata