If you're thinking a lot about "good times, long gone" during this holiday season, you might be pleased to learn there's a nostalgia expert available.
Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., knows a lot about this topic and blogs about in an online column in Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia).
She has good news.
"People prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles," she writes.
Who would have thought that health in any form was related to loading up on deeply sentimental, sometimes bittersweet, recollections. Do health providers know about this? During the holidays, especially, this could make a difference in the number of emergency-room visits. I say that because nostalgia's origins can be traced to the feelings of 18th century, homesick soldiers and are not related to depression — as some early clinicians thought, and may even think to this day.
I have come to believe nostalgia is a very good emotion. Over time, it has evolved into two forms: historical and personal. The historical form of nostalgia involves being attracted to or feeling sentimental about times in the distant past. For example, I'm frequently nostalgic about the idea of an authentic Victorian Christmas. Living in historic Jacksonville is nicely supportive of that.
"Personal" nostalgia, of course, means you feel warm and wonderful about some part of your own past, such as a particularly pleasant family holiday — Victorian or otherwise. I become nostalgic recalling how my siblings and I would make a choir of handkerchief angels and cuddle together under our small living room's Formica coffee table, popping up the angels over the edge of the table to sing a Christmas Eve concert to our parents. The concept of "singing handkerchiefs" still brings a little lump to my throat.
What I find most fascinating about nostalgia is that it's a "universal" mood state. It cuts across cultures, developmental stages and age span. Sometimes people say babies are nostalgic about being in the womb, which explains why shushing sounds may help them fall asleep when they're fitful. Elderly veterans get nostalgic about raucous times with old army buddies. And that sweet nostalgic recall may help divert and distract them from the more traumatic remembrances of being in war zones.
You might think older adults have the most nostalgia, but Batcho that suggests young adults, at the point of major life transition, may have far more nostalgia. Stay aware if you're around graduating high school seniors or college freshman returning for the holidays in the next few weeks. I think an expert might say, "Let them reminisce and get sentimental — it's therapeutic."
There's a redemptive aspect about feeling nostalgic. We ponder times past and realize there are lessons we can apply to the future. Especially during the holidays, traditions or re-enacted family rituals make us feel connected to a pleasant past and to other people across time — it's a unifying phenomena. And we all know the world needs more unifying.
Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.