Arts & Culture The Traditions Issue

Why traditions can be good for our mental health

Without the rejuvenating predictability and stability that traditions provide along the way, how could we successfully navigate the wilderness of life?
‘The English word tradition comes from the Latin tradere – to hand over.’ Credit: Shutterstock.

Traditional is one of those adjectives that gets thrown around a lot these days. Its exact meaning will depend hugely on who is saying it to whom, and in what context. ‘She is very traditional’ could convey a compliment or conceal a diss. The sentiment of the utterance will be contingent on how we view the traditions in question and how we view those who adhere to them.

The English word tradition comes from the Latin tradere – to hand over, and generally refers to something (an object, belief or behaviour) that has been transmitted from one generation to the next, over several generations.

But how many generations does the ‘something’ need to pass through to be considered a true tradition? This is highly debatable, but according to the distinguished professor and influential sociologist, Edward Shils, a minimum of two transmissions over three generations is required for an act or belief to be deemed traditional.

Some traditions are ancient, with origins stretching back into the mists of time. Others, however, are relatively recent inventions, sometimes cunningly wrapped up in stories that lend them legitimacy by making them seem old.

Whichever way traditions are established, organically or engineered, they tend to become things that we just accept. We might follow them unquestioningly, just because that’s what we have always done and it’s what we see others doing without them coming to any harm. We might assume that there is a good reason for the tradition, and there might be. It is also possible that the original purpose is no longer valid or perhaps it never was valid in the first place. For example, why not have the dessert (sweet) before the main course (savoury)? Why not have extended school holidays in the winter rather than in the summer? Why not call your newborn daughter 1881 rather than Shamsa? One answer to all of the above is, of course, tradition.

If I told you that my daughter was named 1881, you might think that I’m mad.  Alternatively, you might consider me super modern, unfettered by traditional letter-based naming conventions, riding high on the crest of a wave called progress, bestride the shiny surfboard of modernity.

Since the time of the European enlightenment, this idea of being modern has frequently been counterposed against the concept of tradition, especially in the context of progress. Perhaps this is where the adjective ‘traditional’ picked up its sometimes negative connotations. For some people, modern has become synonymous with progress and new ways of doing and being, while traditional is viewed as backward and unsophisticated, something to be pitied, patronised or else gawped at like a freak show exhibit or a VCR machine.

But tradition, like it or not, is essential to a coherent sense of self. Tradition is a crucial aspect of our social identity and is therefore indispensable for our wellbeing and mental health. Traditions are the social glue that binds us to our societies. Without some connection to cultural, national, or familial traditions we would lose our sense of belonging, not only to the past but also to the present and the future.

Traditions also offer us a sense of stability and predictability in an ever-changing and frequently unpredictable world. Uncertainty is the mother of anxiety, and traditions, be they holidays (Eid), sporting occasions (the World Cup) or family gatherings, offer us tranquil islands of certainty and constancy, comfort and security. Without the rejuvenating predictability and stability that traditions provide along the way, how could we successfully navigate the wilderness of life? 

Of course, not all traditions are good, helpful or health promoting, just like not every innovation is meaningfully progressive. If the cannibal now orders online and eats her meals with cutlery rather than with her fingers, is that really progress?

Ultimately, tradition and innovation are equally essential to our long-term survival and advancement. This is why contradictory phrases, such as ‘If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ and ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get the same results’, both ring true. Tradition is a safe place to innovate from, and the best of today’s innovations will become tomorrow’s traditions. There is a healthy tension between the two. There always has been. It’s traditional.

Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.