It Sounds, Smells, and Feels like December!

Oh, we love the sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays! Like the natural changes that distinguish New England’s four seasons, we eagerly anticipate favorite songs, familiar scents, and reconnections with old friends and family. There are family traditions, foods, and serving dishes that appear only for the holidays; decorations and numerous personal items that drive our nostalgia meters bonkers. Yet, as much as we share in this seasonal smorgasbord of life and renewal, each item evokes different memories and reactions for every individual, as well as stoking our personal emotional furnaces.

Scent and sound are especially powerful catalysts that help us travel back in time, at least figuratively. Fresh pine, cinnamon, mulled cider, candles, cookies and desserts…these all transport us to holidays past, possibly to our parents’ or grandparents’ kitchens, maybe to amily — now es long goneto holidays past, possibly to our grandparents’ies, each of us  appear only for the holidays, decorativisit family now long gone. That’s the double-edged sword nostalgia offers; we remember the good and the not-so-good, but it’s all valuable in helping to maintain our emotional health and reduce stress, and can revitalize us through hope, renewed friendships, and overall optimism.

Psychologist Krystine Batcho, PhD, is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and an expert on nostalgia. Her research finds that people who are prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles. According to Batcho, nostalgia can be associated with a number of psychological benefits. Nostalgic reminiscence, for example, helps a person maintain a sense of continuity despite the constant flow of change over time.

“It is reassuring,” Batcho explains, “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. 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.”

Research has shown that our sense of who we are is closely related to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Nostalgia, Batcho stresses, can help a person cope with loneliness by enhancing the sense of social support that comes from knowing that each of us is someone’s daughter or son, mother or father, sister or brother. 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.

Giving back at the holidays, through toy, food and clothing drives, volunteerism and donations also is linked to nostalgia, and has the added benefit of producing a euphoric response known in psychological circles as “giver’s high, which is the result of our bodies’ responding emotionally to our personal goodwill and gestures by producing endorphins, which make us feel good.

Additionally, like scent, music is especially evocative of emotion. Nostalgic song lyrics engage the listener in reverie and capture the bittersweet feeling of years past. “Songs focus us on how the passage of time inevitably brings change, or may remind us of our mistakes and painful aspects of life,” says Batcho. “But the distinctive bittersweet affect of nostalgia also 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.”

Nostalgia, Batcho concludes, engages us in reflection on who we once were and how we have arrived at our present selves. Whether secular or religious, shared traditions renew our sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. By reminding us of events, customs, beliefs or rituals, holiday sounds, sights and scents can help us feel connected to others, even during times of stress or loneliness.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!