Emotional Health · Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: The High Impact of the Holidays

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


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The holiday season tends to provoke strong emotions in us. There are those who love them and those who don’t, but for most of us, holidays are distinct and well defined in our personal histories. Some of that has to do with the characteristic markers that signify the season and that organize and focus our memories of them—fireworks during the Fourth of July, Halloween candy and costumes in the fall, family gatherings during Thanksgiving, and religious holidays like Christmas and Passover.

All of these occasions are marked by traditions that evoke feelings of nostalgia. Like Proust’s famous madeleine, which stimulated enough memories for the seven books of his Remembrance of Things Past, nostalgia is often brought on by sensory experiences. Christmas, for example, is an abundant source of specific sensory sensations—the bright lights, the smell of the fir trees, the warmth of the fires, the taste of holiday food, and the evocative sounds of Christmas carols. Any one of these might be enough to bring back memories, but together they are overwhelming.

It turns out that psychologists have discovered that nostalgia is not only healthy but, to a certain degree, an important emotion. While it transports us to the past and evokes bittersweet emotions that sometimes include longing, it also provides a sense of continuity. Dr. Constantine Sedikides, who created a research tool known as the “Southampton Nostalgia Scale,” reported that for him, “nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. . . it provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.

Sedikides was able to show in experiments that nostalgia can counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety.

For those that have strong, positive memories of childhood holidays, this time of year can be especially rewarding. One woman I spoke with recalled her early feelings of “magic” during the Christmas season. Not only are children encouraged to believe in myths and legends associated with holidays, they are given gifts, treats, and, most important, they are subject to special attention from their parents. Extended families and friends gather, and even the most unsociable people are urged to get into the “holiday spirit.”

Though kids usually report that the things they like best about Christmas are Santa and his presents, what they tend to remember best are the non-materialistic aspects. They recall that Mom took them downtown to see the displays and meet Santa and she waited in a long line with them; they remember the feeling of having an older sibling come home from school for vacation, or watching a favorite holiday film together.

Psychologists and philosophers dating back to Aristotle have long made a distinction between pleasure-seeking and externally based sources of happiness—called hedonia—and eudaimonia, the kind of happiness that comes from our values and internal emotional resources. Integrating the hedonic and eudaimonic perspectives helps us to more comprehensively understand well-being and pathways to well-being. From this perspective, holidays are most meaningful to us because they nourish the deeper kind of happiness through reinforcing our identity; our connections to our past family, culture, and community; and, crucially, our relationships with friends and family in the present.

Holiday gift giving, though, can be more than a material thing: it can be an important means through which we can actively express our gratitude to those who love us and support us throughout the year. Almost all studies of personal satisfaction have found that our “happiness” quotient can be raised if we focus on what we are grateful for in our lives. This time of year we are encouraged to reflect on and express our thanks and love for others.

It has become more fashionable to discuss the negative side of the holidays: the pressure, the commercialism, and the competitive displays. For those who feel isolated and who don’t have a positive “trove” of nostalgic memories to draw on, negative feelings of sadness and depression can be acute. Nostalgia always has its bittersweet side, even at the best of times, since it focuses on things that have passed, and is often mixed with a wistful sense of loss. Those who have been recently bereaved usually find the first year of holidays without the person they are mourning particularly difficult. A friend whose mother died last summer said, “I think life can begin again after the holidays,” referring to the acute sadness of celebrating them without her.

For some of us, the nostalgia evoked by the holidays brings with it a problem called “self-discontinuity.” The old Crosby, Stills & Nash song warns not to let the past “remind us of what we are not now.” Again, researchers such as Sedikides have found that focusing on being grateful for what we have had, even if it is past, can help lessen that pain. And “positive psychologists” like Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, have shown that gratitude for our current blessings—even very small ones—can be an immediate mood enhancer.

Meanwhile, it seems that just by improving our attitude about the holidays we can get more out of them. Instead of feeling pressure, we can be helped if we understand that holidays are not just for children but are important, healthy rituals that maintain—and even improve—our emotional well-being. We should approach them with a conscious eye toward expressing our love and gratitude to those we cherish and reinforcing our ties to them. Even for us world-weary adults, this can be magic.



Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Collins, 2009 

Henderson, L.W., & Knight, T. (2012). International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 196–221. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i3

Seligman, Martin E.P., Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Free Press, 2005

“What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” The New York Times, July 8, 2013  


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  • B. Elliott December 18, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Very insightful and helpful article! Thanks, Dr. Ford.