Why rituals matter

Each weekday evening when Jane returns home from work she follows a familiar routine.

Feeling tired and stressed after a typically busy day at work, and frustrated from her long commute, she places her purse on the kitchen counter and kneels down. There she is greeted by the loving licks and wags of Buster, her Golden Retriever.

As Jane rises she reaches for the leash that hangs to her left, and off they go on a long walk. While Buster does his business Jane might chat with a neighbor, notice the cat chasing its tail across the street, or listen to the soothing sounds of the fountain down the block.

But mostly Jane quiets herself in the waning light, reflecting on her day and mentally preparing the dinner she is about to serve her family.

This is a ritual that Jane cherishes. Her evening walks with Buster are a bridge, where she crosses from the demands and rigors of her work to the joy and warmth of her home and family. No matter the season or the circumstance, she can’t imagine not doing it.

When we think of rituals it’s the more formal ceremonies that often come to mind – the baby shower, the graduation, the wedding. Or perhaps you are reminded of the weekly religious services practiced by your faith.

But there is an almost limitless assortment of smaller rituals we practice on a daily basis. It may be that thing you do just before every important meeting. Or the way you clean and arrange your tools after gardening. Or the little routine with your hat and gloves as you enter the batter’s box.

Katie Silcox, a highly regarded yoga instructor and certified wellness coach, recalls a ritual she enjoyed while visiting friends:

Every night, Chrisandra and I would meet in the kitchen to prepare dinner. We would laugh and dance and chop garlic and greens and simmer the day’s problems away. Then, Rob would come in and help us set the table (with a real tablecloth, place mats, and napkins!), and we all would sit down and say grace. With our hands held and the candles lit, we brought our hearts and presence to the space, and honored this time to be together. It felt sacred. In a very deep way, I felt like I had come home, and that I was with family.

A ritual is any purposeful and clearly defined sequence of words and/or actions that focus your attention, establish significance, and cause a beneficial outcome.

Rituals are symbolic behaviors that alleviate apprehension and bring a sense of control. They settle us and help us to be mindful of whatever it is we wish to accomplish.

In an article in Scientific American, Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, behavioral scientists and professors at Harvard Business School, describe the ubiquitous nature of rituals.

Rituals take an extraordinary array of shapes and forms. At times performed in communal or religious settings, at times performed in solitude; at times involving fixed, repeated sequences of actions, at other times not. People engage in rituals with the intention of achieving a wide set of desired outcomes, from reducing their anxiety to boosting their confidence, alleviating their grief to performing well in a competition – or even making it rain.

Whether it is walking the dog, saying grace, or preparing for a date with someone you love, rituals bring structure and meaning to our lives.

They orient us to what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. And they work.

Many of our rituals will evolve over time as what we are focusing on gains and looses significance. Some rituals will provide a foundation for our life.

Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, had an Orthodox upbringing. Like the Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox Jews have strict rules about what they do and how they behave on their Sabbath.

They do not work or use machines of any kind. Instead, the seventh day of the week is reserved for their religion and time spent with family. And the observance of the Sabbath is sacred.

As he grew older Sacks lapsed, mainly for personal reasons. But now, as he nears the end of his life, he reminisces about what this ritual meant to him:

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of life might I have lived?

Whether mundane, as in placing our cap just so or walking the dog every evening, or profound, as in the saying of grace or the observance of the Sabbath, our rituals bring us structure, predictability, and, ultimately, happiness.


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