You read a lot on the internet about rituals that can help you be better in the morning or leap over tall building with a single bound. Maybe some celebrity does this one or that one. Yeah, wonderful.
But what’s a simple solution customized for you — yes, you — that can make your happy moments happier, can help you overcome grief, increase your performance at work, and even stop procrastinating?
The #1 ritual to do every day is: use more rituals.
Confused? Science is realizing that often just having a ritual is the important part — and it’s been validated in a number of studies.
It doesn’t matter that Warren Buffett does it before breakfast — the most important thing is that you do it. It’s your ritual. And the more personal you make it and the more consistently you use it the more powerful it can be.
Often we just rush from thing to thing but having a little ritual you always do before a big (or little) moment that sets you at ease, focuses your attention or steels your resolve can have a huge effect on how you feel and how well you perform.
I spoke to Harvard professor Francesca Gino, author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, about her research on the power of rituals to improve our lives.
Okay, let’s learn how you can use little rituals to help you be happier and perform better…
Ever do a toast before you drink? It made the drink taste better. Really.
Ever take joy in the ritual of preparing your morning coffee? It made that cup of joe that much better.
By focusing your attention on what you drink or eat, little rituals help you enjoy these moments more. Here’s Francesca:
Think about rituals that you engage in prior to consumption experiences. What they do, they make us a little bit more mindful about the consumption experience that we are about to have. Because of that, we end up savoring the food or whatever we are drinking more, we enjoy the experience more, and in fact, we’re also more willing to pay higher prices for whatever it is that we just consumed. Once again, rituals are beneficial in the sense that they create higher levels of enjoyment in the experience that we just had.
But rituals don’t just improve the taste of food. They can also make your kids healthier, more engaged with their family and help them get better grades.
Interestingly, some rituals have actually been shown to be beneficial to our mental and physical well-being. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, “In families with predictable routines, children had fewer respiratory illnesses and better overall health, and they performed better in elementary school.” The article added that rituals have a greater effect on emotional health, and that in families with strong rituals adolescents “reported a stronger sense of self, couples reported happier marriages and children had greater interaction with their grandparents.”
A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.
Can rituals make your relationship happier? You betcha. What’s a good one?
When you see the person you love, share good news with them and have them share good news with you.
This is a happiness one-two punch. It helps you savor and improves your relationship.
Sharing successes and accomplishments with others has been shown to be associated with elevated pleasant emotions and well-being. So, when you or your spouse or cousin or best friend wins an honor, congratulate him or her (and yourself ), and celebrate. Try to enjoy the occasion to the fullest. Passing on and rejoicing in good news leads you to relish and soak up the present moment, as well as to foster connections with others.
And when they share their good news with you, don’t just grunt or nod. Show them some admiration. When I spoke to relationship expert John Gottman he said this was one of the most powerful things you can do to show your love.
(To learn the 4 rituals new neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
So using a ritual during the good times can make them better. But what about the bad times?
When loved ones die or relationships end you can be overwhelmed with grief. You feel like you have no control over your emotions.
What’s fascinating is Francesca’s research shows that rituals during the tough times can give us back that feeling of control and reduce the painful feelings. Here’s Francesca:
What we found is that when people experience a loss that is important to them, if they engage in a ritual, they feel less grief and less sadness towards the loss that they experienced. In this domain, rituals bring back a sense of control and reduce the level of anger or sadness that people experience.
So what’s a good ritual when times are hard? Try writing about your feelings.
When I spoke with Jamie Pennebaker, a professor at UT Austin, he said the ritual of writing about your problems has been proven in literally hundreds of studies to make people feel better.
But don’t just document the event like you’re writing a police report. Get emotional. Open up and let those feelings out. Again, the best rituals are personal to you.
A guiding principle of expressive writing is that you express yourself openly and honestly. People who write in a cold, detached manner and who quote Shakespeare, Aristotle, or Henry Ford may be fine historians and may even write a great editorial in the local newspaper. But impressive writing is not the point of expressive writing. People who benefit the most from writing are able to find a voice that reflects who they are.
(For more on how to overcome grief, anxiety or heartache with writing, click here.)
Okay, so you have a ritual for when bad things happen. What about when you’re afraid bad things will happen — and you start procrastinating?
You’re worried about that presentation at work. So you procrastinate. So you have less time to work on it. Which makes you worry more. So you procrastinate more. So…
Francesca’s research showed that rituals can help reduce that terrible anxiety. Here’s Francesca:
What we find is that if you engage in a ritual prior to a potentially high anxiety task, like singing in public or solving difficult math problems, you end up being calmer by the time you approach the task, and more confident in what you’re about to do.
So what’s a good way to help beat anxiety and reduce procrastination? When I spoke to Charles Duhigg, bestselling author of The Power of Habit, he suggested you use a “personal starting ritual.” Here’s Charles:
One way to use habits to fight procrastination is to develop a habitualized response to starting. When people talk about procrastination, what they’re usually actually talking about is the first step. In general, if people can habitualize that first step, it makes it a lot easier.
And here’s the best part: your personal starting ritual can be something fun. Anything that puts you in a good mood and gets you going. And that can mean video games, surfing the web or whatever little indulgence you love. Here’s Charles:
For instance, I’m going to set a timer for five minutes. I’m going to surf the web for five minutes. As soon as the timer goes off, I’m going to do “X”. Whatever “X” is, for the first step. One of the things that’s important, is to recognize that you can’t simply extinguish this craving for entertainment or novelty — the things that drive procrastination. Instead, what you need to do, is you need to indulge that craving but indulge it in such a way that the recovery is very easy. Pete Gollwitzer calls this “Implementation Intentions.” He says, “Let yourself procrastinate for five minutes but set the timer. As soon as the beeper goes off, you know that you’re immediately going to start writing the memo or start answering emails.” The lesson there is, “Don’t just try and power through not procrastinating.” Instead, come up with a plan where you allow yourself to indulge this craving you have, which isn’t going to go away, but do it so the recovery is encapsulated.
Research shows that procrastination is often caused by a bad mood. So don’t beat yourself up and grit your teeth. Make it a ritual to give yourself a little of what you love to get you feeling good and ready to get to work.
(For more on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
Okay, so all these change how we feel. But can rituals actually make us perform better when it counts? Yup. Here’s how…
Athletes have all kinds of crazy rituals like not changing their socks or carrying a good luck charm.
And you know what? This stuff works. Here’s Francesca:
In the third project, we looked at sports. Some of the pregame routines that some of the players have are kind of funny. What we studied in this project was whether these rituals are really of beneficial effect in terms of bringing you confidence and potentially impacting your performance positively. That is actually what we found.
Little rituals don’t just boost your ability, they can also make you more creative.
A 2008 study by the University of Toronto’s Chen-Bo Zhong and his colleagues found that doing something habitual, such as going for a walk, washing the dishes, or taking a nap, enables you to unconsciously access peripheral information your brain may not readily consider during an intense state of focus.
What have you suspected always brings you luck? Doesn’t matter if it’s silly. Whatever gives you confidence will work. What gives you that feeling that you can take on the world? That’s your new ritual when you need to be at your best.
(For more on how you can be luckier, click here.)
Okay, we’ve got some great rituals. Let’s round them up and learn the final secret to rituals that makes them even more powerful…
Here’s how to use rituals to improve your life:
Are you skeptical? Here’s the best part: it doesn’t matter. In Francesca’s research she found that you don’t even need to believe in the power of rituals for them to provide benefits:
This lack of moderation for frequency and belief across both grief and control suggests that rituals do not require belief in order to yield benefits.
So it doesn’t matter if the ritual comes from Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs. What matters is that it’s your ritual and that you actually do it.
The best rituals don’t come from celebrities. They come from your heart.
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