The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Happy and Not-So-Happy New Years

We spend New Year's day alone, nursng hangovers.

I have a close friend and colleague who was born and raised in South Korea. We talk a great deal, and I am usually struck - when I stop and reflect - that people from very different backgrounds often share very much in common. But once in a while, I am also struck that people can be very different because of their cultures of origin.

As 2009 was coming to an end, my friend and I spoke about New Year's celebrations and the forms that they can take. In the United States, on New Year's Eve, many of us get drunk and watch the ball come down at Time's Square. We spend New Year's Day alone, nursing hangovers and obsessively watching college football games that don't matter.

So what does it all mean? As a thoroughly American kind of guy, I never thought much about the bigger picture of the New Year and how we mark it in the United States. That's like expecting a goldfish in a bowl to be able to expound on the meaning of water. But when my friend described what goes on in South Korea, I was fascinated, in large part because of the light that "her" New Year shed on "my" New Year.

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In South Korea today, there are actually two celebrations that mark the end of one year and the beginning of another, the traditional one defined by the Asian lunar calendar and the more recent one defined by the Western solar calendar.

In South Korea, the lunar New Year is celebrated with one's family. It seems a warm and gentle occasion, a time to take stock, to look ahead, and to be grateful for the people who have mattered most. The younger members of a family formally thank the older members, and the older members formally bless the younger members. Often these rituals go beyond the immediate family to include neighbors. The lunar New Year celebration in South Korea seems like a more prescribed version of US Thanksgiving Day, without turkey but also without the Detroit Lions.

In contrast, the end of the solar New Year is celebrated by South Koreans like we do in the United States, by going to parties, getting drunk, and carrying on. And here's the punch line: the Korean word for the solar New Year celebration more-or-less translates as "getting together to forget the past year."

Wow! Might that be what we are doing in the United States? Appreciate that the solar New Year celebration is a US export to South Korea. In naming it as they have, perhaps South Koreans were just stating the obvious, even if Americans overlook it. This particular goldfish just learned something about water.

Why would we ever want to forget the past year? One answer is that "forgetting" allows closure and thus allows us to move on to the future. But "forgetting" should not mean wiping our memories clean. Even if less than pleasant, our past provides important lessons about our future. In any event, why would we ever want to mark an important milestone by being drunk or hung over? Why would we ever want to celebrate anything by shutting out other people?

Better to celebrate January 1 as if it were the lunar New Year, by gathering close to us those who make our lives worth living and doing everything possible to savor - and remember - them, to appreciate what they have done for us, and to think about what we can do for them.

 

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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