For many of us, Thanksgiving means gathering with family and enjoying time-tested recipes — Dad’s famous mashed potatoes, your brother’s homemade cranberry sauce, or Grandma’s pumpkin pie.

While the food itself may be wonderful, there’s a psychological component to eating the same things every year that benefits the human mind.

“When you do something repeatedly over the years, it builds up a kind of power,” nutritional psychologist Marc David says. “It creates its own momentum. To make the same dish year after year, decade after decade, there’s something in that that connects us to the past.”

David says our brains are hardwired to relax when surrounded by things we know. That’s why familiar music, smells, songs and — yes — even food can bring back such warm memories.

Dr. Clay Routledge works with other researchers from the University of Southampton’s nostalgia project. They found nostalgia actually increases self-esteem by making us remember what really matters to us — thus making us think our lives are meaningful.

“What’s amazing about autobiographical memory is that bad memories fade faster than positive memories,” Routledge says. “One thing that’s interesting about nostalgia is that it’s not 100% detail accurate — it’s more the highlights.”

And as for all that food?

“[It's] just sort of a trigger or cue for what the holidays are really all about, which is relationships. We don’t eat these foods other times of the year because we’ve segmented them off as special. They go with this occasion. They go with the relationships,” he said.

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