Mental Floss: The ritual of making a New Year resolution

Karina was born in Copenhagen but raised on Belgian waffles. She has lived in six different countries and speaks just as many languages. She is a psychologist, couples therapist and university lecturer. As an academic she has worked with expat issues for more than ten years. Find her at

Being an expat means moving around in other cultures, and as exciting as that is, it can also be a real challenge. It can be helpful to have something that gives you comfort – which helps you live the story that is your life. Rituals are a great resource to do exactly that.

Rituals big and small
When something important happens in life, people manifest them using rituals. Filled with symbols, they can mark big occasions – like the beginning of a life, or the end of it. Of course, rituals can be used for smaller occasions too. Although usually social in nature, I believe it is important to have our own individual and family rituals to mark an occasion or a transformation, or just to remind us of our own values and beliefs. 

Rituals are not limited to the religious aspects of a culture. It is clear that many rituals – particularly initiation rites and rites of passage – are concerned with religion, but others may be about power and status, or about definitions of gender identity and social roles.

Marking a transition
Rituals are also used to mark a time when a transition is made. Like jumping into the New Year, as many Danes literally do. The theme of celebration, as in celebrating New Year, is part of many rituals. Many family celebrations and traditions are also marked by the exchange of gifts, food and cards. 

But in day-to-day life, a small ritual like kissing a child or a partner goodnight can be a way of giving and receiving love and affection. So it doesn’t have to include a materialistic aspect, nor is it always about a celebration. Rituals can also be very solemn, as with rituals of healing and transformation.

Adapted when abroad
Rituals concerned with living abroad could range from formalising the first dinner in a new house, to marking the ending of a journey by saying goodbye to the house, when a ritual of walking through the empty rooms could be helpful. 

And on the issue of endings: saying goodbye to a loved one who passed away while one was abroad is very difficult. Writing a letter to the deceased, or even just a note with the word farewell on it, which is then buried, could be another example of a ritual. The possibilities are endless, really, and everybody has their own ideas of what is important and how it could be marked.

A good time to start
A ritual can boost your resilience because if it is meaningful to you – it has the capacity to embrace our human need for continuity and connection. So think about how you would design a ritual of your own, perhaps related to being an expat. An important factor in making your own ritual is that it should fit with the issues in your life, along with your values and opinions. 

Perhaps you even have some of your own rituals already. And if not, perhaps now is a good time to start. You could call it the ritual of making a New Year resolution.