Opinion: Nostalgia is a great holiday gift for yourself, others

It’s part of the human psychological response to and defense from distress.

What are your favorite holiday memories? Does a certain Christmas carol send you back to your parents’ living room, eyeing presents under the tree? Does a dreidel in your hand take you back to the childhood pleasure of games with family and friends? Is it the taste of homemade pumpkin pie? Or is it the pastiche of warm feelings from years of family gatherings?

Nostalgia gets a bad rap. It’s often dismissed as an escape into the past or a species of infirmity (the term dates to 1688, when a Swiss physician coined it for what he saw as a physical disease). Modern science tells a very different story, however: We now know that nostalgia is a restorative and even motivational resource.

In fact, the best gift you can give yourself this holiday season may be sowing the seeds of future nostalgia.

Since the turn of this century, scientists have studied nostalgia — its causes and effects, using the modern tools of behavioral science. We have learned that, while it can have many external triggers, internally it’s not a cause of unhappiness but instead a response to it — it’s part of the human psychological response to and defense from distress. When we feel sad, lonely, anxious, or even bored, or that our lives lack meaning, stability and direction, our minds naturally drift toward nostalgia for comfort and guidance.

Nostalgia permeates this time of year like so much glitter on a tree. More than three-quarters (76%) of Americans describe themselves as feeling nostalgic during the holiday season, according to a recent survey from Harris Poll, in collaboration with the Archbridge Institute’s Human Flourishing Lab. No wonder: Holiday music is predominantly a mix of familiar standards, many of which call upon us to harken to “tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago,” recorded, re-recorded, and covered by countless artists and bands. We bring the same decorations and ornaments and silly sweaters out of storage each year and follow the traditions of our childhood, which our parents learned the same way. The ghost of Jacob Marley may have dismally worn the chains he forged in life, but most of us are adding our own happy links to a line stretching from before our past to beyond our future.

Holiday traditions form the framework which nurtures our cherished memories — and which feed future nostalgia. More than two-thirds of Americans (69%) say that they follow at least some holiday traditions which were passed on, while more than four in five Americans agree that handing down such customs benefits both younger (84%) and older (82%) generations. Similar numbers of Americans think back on their childhood winter holidays fondly (81%) and believe that this is the time of year to create new memories (86%).

People take stock of their lives at this time of year, a process which points out problems — but contextualizes them with what’s right. On balance, that clarity helps them shed the negativity they accrued during the year. This bittersweet mix is actually an integral part of how nostalgia helps us. Research finds that nostalgic memories tend to follow a redemptive sequence. When we engage in nostalgic reflection, any unpleasant emotional states we experience are typically eclipsed by positive emotional states. For instance, feelings of loss are overwhelmed by feelings of love. Nostalgia encourages us to appreciate what makes life worth living.

Indeed, studies have also shown that nostalgia makes people feel more connected with their loved ones and that they have more meaning in their lives. So it’s not surprising that the nostalgia-laden holiday season makes people feel more connected with those to whom they are closest (83%) and see this as a time to focus on what gives their lives meaning (84%). As important, nostalgia increases optimism, self-confidence, creativity and motivation to pursue goals.

It is no coincidence that so many faiths and cultures have light-oriented celebrations at the darkest time of year, just as days start to grow longer once again: It is a time of restoration and renewal. Nostalgia and tradition center us, reminding who we are and where we came from — and help us prepare for the next stage of our life’s journey into a new year. Indeed, studies find that nostalgia makes people feel self-confident and optimistic about the future.

So give yourself the gift of future nostalgia. The best part is that it’s easy. When we asked Americans what this is a season for, the most popular response was connecting with loved ones. Renewing those bonds now will help make future holiday seasons merry and bright.

Will Johnson is CEO of The Harris Poll, a global public opinion, market research and strategy firm. Clay Routledge is vice president of research and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute.

Credit: Clay Routledge

Credit: Clay Routledge

Credit: Will Johnson

Credit: Will Johnson