The rituals we adopt range from mundane to bizarre and intentional to subconscious. In practice, they can function as a close cousin to superstitions (an unfounded belief in the causal relationship between certain actions and results), and pragmatists may characterize them as random, pointless or, even irrational. But, they're indisputably powerful; research suggests they can help reduce anxiety, boost confidence, aid in the grieving process, and even improve performance. They can help us navigate challenges—and beat them.
So naysayers may be wise to stifle their eye rolls and consider the useful function that rituals can actually serve in their life.
The anatomy of a ritual
Though, as noted, rituals are often conflated with superstitions, that's a misnomer. “The way I see it, every ritual will have a superstitious element, but not every superstition will manifest itself as a ritual,” says behavioral scientist Nick Hobson, PhD. Consider the pre-match rituals Serena Williams once recounted to the Evening Standard: “I lost because I didn't tie my shoe the right way and…I have to use the same shower, I have to use the same sandals, I have to travel with the same bags.” Undeniably, there's a superstitious component at play here, but there's also more. As Dr. Hobson says, rituals meanings are distinctive from superstitions because they're made up of three distinct elements: behavior, symbolism, and irrationality.
"Every ritual will have a superstitious element, but not every superstition will manifest itself as a ritual.” —behavioral scientist Nick Hobson, PhD
First, a ritual is a repeated stereotype or a formal set of behaviors, like facing west when you work, or Williams' example of tying your shoes a specific way. Second, it carries some level of symbolic meaning. “That’s what separates it from a routine or a habit, which don’t carry very much meaning,” Dr. Hobson says. “We do those for an outcome, but a ritual carries some level of importance.” Finally, there’s a magical quality to a ritual, an irrationality, as Hobson put it. “With a routine, there’s a clear link to an outcome. But in ritual, that link is unclear,” he says.
In other words, there’s no logic behind a ritual, but we engage anyway for a number of reasons. In religious services, rituals meaning anything in a community can facilitate a sense of belonging. In the case of grief, rituals, like burying a loved one, for instance, can provide a sense of closure.
In the 1920s, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed behaviors of residents in what's now Papua New Guinea and noticed their specific rituals they turned to when finishing in shark-infested waters. When fishing in calmer waters, they skipped the rituals. Malinowski suggested that humans perform rituals in situations in which the outcome is uncertain.
In other words, in a world where so much is seemingly out of our hands—like winning and losing, life and death, and potential shark attacks—rituals can provide a sense of control.
How rituals really work
According to Dr. Hobson's research, rituals help to ease our anxiety and make us less sensitive to failure, which in turn leads to improved performance on certain tasks. To test the hypothesis, he and his team of researchers had study participants engage in a completely made-up ritual at home, once a day for a week. After that week, participants' brain activity was measured in a lab while they performed a task with and without the ritual. “We found those participants who had the ritual-like experience showed a part in the brain consistent with a reduction in anxiety. And that anxiety reduction helped them feel less anxious and perform better,” Dr. Hobson says.
What's more is that when the subjects made mistakes, their stress response to the failure was reduced when they completed the ritual. They weren’t overwhelmed with their errors, Dr. Hobson says, and they didn’t collapse under the pressure of their mistakes.
“Rituals, or something expected, certain, and largely controlled by us, offer us a bit of structure and predictability in what may appear to be an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable time.” —Victoria Tarbell, LMHC
“Anytime a person makes a mistake, commits an error, or experiences some kind of uncertainty, there’s this sharp inflection that fires off in the mid-frontal area of the brain,” he says. But when subjects completed the ritual, that signal was muted. So in a way, rituals meaning can function as a placebo for our own instinctive ability to recover when faced with adversity.
To be clear, life is full of uncertainty and rituals won’t clear them up, says therapist Victoria Tarbell, LMHC. “What rituals can do is support us in becoming more skilled in navigating our way through that uncertainty,” she says. So, while it’s true that if you don’t know the answers on the test, your pre-exam pencil-sharpening ritual won't effectively compensate, the practice can help you feel more confident and better focused, which can in turn help you take the exam at your sharpest. “Rituals, or something expected, certain, and largely controlled by us, offer us a bit of structure and predictability in what may appear to be an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable time,” Tarbell adds.
How to implement rituals in your everyday life
To build your own ritual from scratch, remember the three ingredients that make one: behavior, symbolism, and irrationality. Dr. Hobson suggests starting with symbolism. “When a behavior has no bigger, broader meaning, that’s when it becomes compulsive,” he says. “So ask yourself, ‘How is this ritual situated in the bigger picture of my life and direction I’m heading and the goals I have?’” For example, before you board a plane, you might tap the outside of it—a slightly irrational behavior that’s symbolic of a good, safe flight.
Or perhaps before taking the stage at a public-speaking event, you repeat a mantra that helps you calm down. “Having a supportive statement or two that we can ground ourselves in at the start or end of our day can be immensely helpful," Tarbell says. "It can be just one word, maybe it’s a short saying." And while she reminds that using a mantra to guide you through your day won't remove the factor of uncertainty, it does help you cope with it. It’s a simple behavior that grounds you when your nerves seem unmanageable.
And since rituals certainly do pose a threat of becoming counterproductive to your health and happiness, thus no longer serving their purpose, Dr. Hobson suggests turning to common rituals shared with others. “This is because you have the ability to make sense of the ritual with others and attach it to a larger narrative," he says of adopting rituals that are part of an existing community. This practice helps safeguard a rituals from dominating rather than empowering.
And really, that's the point of rituals—to empower. Whether they're turned to for the intent of winning a game or reaching a goal, feeling even the tiniest bit more powerful can go a long way.
Want more rituals intel? Here at the ones that the healthiest people in the world swear by. And if you need some inspo for a ritual to spark your love life, check out Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman's morning routine.
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