It’s the holiday season, which typically means a few too many festive treats, lots of time spent with loved ones and even more time spent remembering holidays past. While some of the memories can be bittersweet (like remembering spending the holidays with someone who’s passed away), Dr. Krystine Batcho tells the American Psychological Association that this yearly nostalgia overload is actually good for our mental health.

People are a lot more nostalgic around the holidays, says Batcho, an expert in the subject.

“People feel more nostalgic during the holidays because many memories are reawakened and relationships renewed,” she says. “During the holidays, families and friends get together to celebrate and reconnect; they get caught up on one another’s lives, reminisce and browse through old photographs. Even from afar, friends and relatives get back in touch, with phone calls, letters, greeting cards and posts on social networking sites. Like anniversaries and other temporal landmarks, 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. For many, holidays bring back memories of simpler times along with the sense of the security of childhood or the carefree feelings of being young, with fewer of the worries and stress that accompany responsibilities. Most often, holidays remind us of people who have played important roles in our lives and the activities we shared with them.”

This is a key factor in why many people living away from their families feel homesick and nostalgic during the holidays, Batcho explains, and why so many us travel during this time to be with family and friends.

And despite previous research that has said nostalgia is a bad thing, she says nostalgia has been known to have remarkably positive psychological benefits.

“Nostalgic reminiscence helps a person maintain a sense of continuity despite the constant flow of change over time,” Batcho says. “It is reassuring to realize how rich our lives have been — how much joy, hard work, success and excitement we have experienced. During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure or misfortune in the past. When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong and productive at times in our past.”

And, what can be the biggest nostalgia offender during the holiday season? All you have to do is turn on your radio the day after Thanksgiving to find out.

“Music is especially evocative of emotion,” Batcho says. “Nostalgic song lyrics engage the listener in reverie and capture the bittersweet feeling of the past’s irretrievability. Some nostalgic song lyrics describe happy memories. For example, the country song, ‘Young,’ recounts joyful experiences that typify the exuberance of youth. Not all nostalgic songs are happier than other songs; sometimes they remind us of loss. Songs such as ‘Those Were the Days’ and ‘Yesterday’ focus on how the passage of time inevitably brings changes in youthfulness, vigor and the carefree innocence not yet jaded by the mistakes, difficulties and painful aspects of life. But the distinctive bittersweet affect characteristic of nostalgia can transform the sense of loss into a positive appreciation of how much we have enjoyed, how much we have survived and, most importantly, how much we have loved and have been loved.”

Read the rest of the interview

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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