Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day this weekend will be marked with gatherings, events and a two minute silence across the UK. The significant date commemorates the day World War One ended, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, back in 1918. This year, 100 years on, there are more TV specials, column inches and ceremonies than ever before. But some may argue that with just a handful of survivors from that era, isn’t our need to mark the occasion somewhat pointless? But psychologists say not, that remembrance is incredibly important to our culture, community and also our soul.
At a time of remembering the fallen in the services we are also likely to remember those we know who have passed, which is an important function to our mental health. This socially acceptable opportunity to remember the dead is important. “Grief experts agree that taking steps to appropriately remember loved ones is actually essential for healing,” says Allison Gilbert, author of ‘Passed and Present: Keeping memories of loved ones alive’. “Individuals who keep the memory of loved ones alive almost always fare better emotionally than those who don’t.” Having conversations about loved ones who lived through the two World Wars brings us closer to them and also helps consolidate our feelings about them and their passing. Similarly remembering veterans from any era is also a way to cope with their life and make their death in service more understandable.
The passing down of stories through the generations is incredibly important to aiding our sense of self and identity. Even generations on, telling the war – or other – stories of those who went before provides a strong connection to the past and way of shaping futures. Developmental psychologist Robyn Fivush looked at how American teens recounted ‘intergenerational’ stories – memories shared within the family – and the impact it had on them. She found most could easily retell many of their parents’ memory stories and also made strong connections between these second-hand family memories and their own developing sense of identity. They would be inspired by the actions of their forefathers and also feel if their ancestors could do it then generations on so could they. Children who showed these kinds of family memory self-identity connections also reported higher levels of well-being.
As we get older sharing memories is also a great way to support and prolong our ability to use our memoires. Researchers have found when we try and remember an event alone we are less able to do so or do it with less detail. When remembering with others who were there the memories tend to be richer and more detailed.
The centenary offers the chance for those from other cultures and also the young to learn about a shared history with the rest of the world. It can help unify communities who feel they have nothing in common – the British Future survey found, just 44 per cent of adults know about the contribution of Commonwealth Soldiers in the wars. Yet 1.3 million people volunteered with the British Indian Army in the First War (70,000 lost their lives). These soliders, who will also be remembered, chose to fight for Britain and in a time of fragmentation and when the political right through Europe has never been stronger, it’s a fact which can unify rather than divide along race lines.
One of the key facets of Remembrance Day is showing gratitude and thanks for the service of those before us. And giving time for thanks is incredibly good for us. There are so many psychological benefits to being grateful, including feeling happier and lowering stress, depression and anxiety as gratitude shifts your focus from what your life lacks to the abundance that is already present.
Dr Robert Emmons, author of ‘Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier’ has found studies around the world looking at the effects of gratitude show practicing gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great,” he says. “It just means we are aware of our blessings.” His research also found those who practice gratitude tend to be more creative, bounce back more quickly from adversity, have a stronger immune system, and have stronger social relationships than those who don’t practice gratitude.
Although the act of thinking about the conditions and actions veterans witnessed in the wars then – and in current conflict – may be sobering, showing our gratitude has a positive effect on our mentality. Showing gratitude promotes optimism and helps develop a more positive outlook. It also provides and time and reason to pause and reflect on what we have rather than focusing on wanting more and not being satisfied with our lot.