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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Rituals to feel good

What are your non-negotiables? A daily walk? Meditation? Or something sweet at 2 p.m.?” The New York Times asked its readers this question last August. They wanted to hear from readers about the little things they did regularly to feel good, either physically or mentally.

The readers’ responses appeared in the article The Little Rituals That Keep Us Going. One ate a banana on his daily morning walk. Another read Nancy Drew for five minutes before bedtime each night. Other responses included counting yellow doors aloud, watching birds from the patio, and counting dogs. One mother had a cup of tea with her son every day after school.

Walking on a beach inside a maze made of sea shells

Rituals in daily life

Why do people regularly do such things?

Human behavior is very puzzling, says Dimitris Xygalatas, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut.“We think about ourselves as very rational beings; and yet, so much of what we consider meaningful is in actions that are compulsively repeated and yet have no obvious outcome.”

Rational people engage in rituals with no specific purpose or expected outcomes but cannot explain why those rituals are important to them. Psychologists believe rituals play an important role in helping people deal with anxiety and uncertainty. They also help to connect with other people and find meaning in their lives.

Ritualistic practices that derive from faith or religious beliefs–the daily prayer, or regular visits to the temple, church, mosque, or synagogue, for example–have been practiced in societies for millennia. So have rituals that are founded on superstition.

Rites of passage are also rituals

Professor Rebecca Lester is a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and a practicing psychotherapist. “We generally do not think of ourselves as an overly ritualistic society,” she says, “but we are, in fact, profoundly ritualistic. First-day-of-school photos posted to Facebook, proms, graduations, bachelorette parties, honeymoons, retirement parties, memorial concerts, and even sporting events—all of these are ritual events or practices that mark transitions and create or celebrate social ties.” 

These ‘rites-of-passage’ rituals “move participants from one state of social being to another: child to adult, fiancé to wife, student to graduate.” Rituals help us in the phases of transitions in our lives: separation from a state or status, the time we spend in-between states, and the period of integration into a new state.

Help with uncertainty

People often struggle with emotional and psychological disorientation during these times. They feel disconnected, isolated, and sometimes depressed. Sleeplessness and anxiety are common. In these situations, psychotherapists often help patients create their own rituals as a way of overcoming these feelings during the transition or period of uncertainty.  

Such rituals help clients “devise ways of marking time and progress when the world around all of us seems to be on hold,’’ says Dr. Lester; “rituals might be as simple as getting dressed in work clothes even when working from home and changing out of them at the end of the workday, or planning a pizza and movie night for every Friday.” 

Meeting certain friends regularly, or calling family members on prescribed days, “may not seem like rituals, but they can become ways of marking the cycles of time, or the beginnings and endings of different role statuses.”

Rituals have repeatedly been shown to be effective in dealing with uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, even if there is no direct causal connection with the desired outcome.

Benefits of rituals

Francesca Gino & Michael Norton, professors at the Harvard Business School describe the results of their research into rituals in an article in the Scientific American. “There are real benefits to rituals, religious or otherwise,” they state, “people facing situations that induce anxiety typically take comfort in engaging in preparatory activities, inducing a feeling of being back in control and reducing uncertainty.”

Their research shows that even simple rituals can be extremely effective. While there is no direct connection with desired outcomes, rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Superstitious rituals, for example, enhanced people’s confidence in their abilities and motivated increased effort. This in turn improved their performance.

A picture of hands over the flame of a lamp

Cultural rituals foster success

There are many examples. The authors describe how the basketball superstar Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game. Religious and cultural rituals are widely performed in different societies to foster success or good outcomes on special occasions such as the beginning of an important undertaking, the purchase of a new home or car, embarking on a long journey, admission to school, or celebrating a wedding. They help people deal with the loss and grief following the death of a family member.

Yet another benefit is that rituals can help build meaningful, long-lasting habits and promote positive behaviors that quickly become automated habits. Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of a culture design consultancy firm incorporates ritual-building techniques in training programs for Fortune 500 companies. The aim is to build better work environments, improve collaboration, and increase both individual and collective performance.

The rituals help build better emotional connections, focus, and attention. They increase appreciation, transform the mundane into something meaningful, help celebrate life, and build a stronger community. Rituals are personal–tailored to the individual, helping make his or her work more interesting.

Do rituals play a role in your life?

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Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...