How Rituals and Routine can impact our lives

Rituals are defined by the Cambridge dictionary as: a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony.[1] A routine is defined as a usual or fixed way of doing things.[2] They both require fixed actions. Elements of superstition, which is a belief that the performance or non-performance of the fixed action can lead to either good or bad consequences, can be present in both. It has often been pondered, debated and researched as to why as a human civilization we have developed rituals and how their uses impact our lives.

Practiced by different cultures, religions, professional practices, therapeutic practices, families, societies, countries, we see many examples. Various cultures will have rituals performed during annual holidays such as Thanksgiving in the US, and Guy Fawkes day in the UK. Rituals can be in the form of gestures such as bowing in Japan, or kissing booth cheeks in most of Europe. Most religions will have sacred days such as Easter in the Catholic church with the ritual practice of Lent, and Puja (Pooja) which is a Hindu morning practice that is performed every morning, but only after bathing and dressing and before eating or drinking. Professional practices may use certain colours throughout their establishment, for instance in China, red is a symbol of prosperity. And therapeutic practices may use a consultation as a routine and ritual for preparation to treat a client. Families may have a weekly gathering for Sunday lunch. Societies such as fraternities and sororities will have an induction process often referred to as pledging or rushing. In many cultures, the groom is not allowed to see the bride before the wedding on the wedding day.

These practices may even be seen as a form of mindfulness. They engage a thought-focused process. Think about when you know it’s time to ‘get ready’ for bed. The ‘getting ready’ is the ritual. Every Saturday you may go to an outdoor market and perhaps your routine is to look at all the fresh flowers.

There has been some research done on how rituals influence our thoughts and behaviours and ultimately how we feel. Professor Harvey Whitehouse, Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, heads up the 'Ritual, Community and Conflict' project funded body of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, archaeologists and evolutionary theorists. Professor Whitehouse says ‘We wanted to test our theory that there were 2 basic clusters of activity in ritual: frequently practised ritual with a low emotional intensity and less frequently practised, more emotionally intense ritual. We surveyed 645 rituals from 74 cultures, selected randomly from the eHRAF (electronic Human Relations Area Files), and constructed a database recording frequency, arousal and contextual information for each of the 645 selected rituals.’[3]

The research covers evolutionary anthropology and social cohesion, but the research suggests that rituals precipitate our way of thinking, how we behave and how we feel.

Ritual and superstition can differ. If you are a tennis fan, you may have witnessed various players perform rituals that may have elements of superstition, such as Rafa Nadal lining up his water bottles by his chair, or Andre Agassi insisting on using the same tennis ball with which a good point was made. These rituals provide them with a sense of comfort and a stimulus of control over a situation that even the most talented player knows they cannot fully control. The opponent has a 50/50 stake on the control lever. They can however, control how the bottles are lined up, or how he shuffles his feet on his way back to his chair. When another factor is introduced, for example, the change of ends on the court, this brings a new set of anxieties, and we begin to see the rituals increase or change, as a new challenge is presented.

A routine can bring a sense of comfort, stability, uniformity, community, peace, and calmness to our lives. We learn to seek pleasure and stability from within the womb. And stability is present until we are thrust out into the world and we must breathe on our own and feel the heat and cold of the world outside of the womb. As we grow beyond infancy into childhood, we may still require extra soothing, so sucking your thumb, twiddling with your hair, or biting your nails may bring a soothing, calming effect. In adulthood we may continue some of those soothing rituals or create new ones. For instance, you may start smoking, drinking or over-eating. You may even continue to bite your nails or go from twiddling with your hair to pulling your hair (trichotillomania), or grinding teeth (bruxism). These are soothing rituals that can cause harm and can become difficult to treat in adulthood.

Rituals that are found to be soothing may be yoga in the morning or evening as you begin and end your day, walking, making a toast with raised your glasses on a birthday, attending church on Sunday, saying a prayer over every meal, playtime with your pet, meditation, or reading the Sunday papers.

When we are faced with uncertainty, challenges, or new conditions, rituals can help to ground us in the here and now, as they are done in the present. The ritual can often disrupt the onset of negative thinking about the outcome of an event, your day or a performance.

Besides athletes, rituals and routines can be seen practiced in other performance-related careers. Actors often tell each other to ‘break a leg’ before a performance. Athletes often use visualisation to focus on winning. Some performers wear the same under garments they wore when they created a particularly successful piece of work. Some musicians chose to work in the same studio in which their most critically acclaimed work was created. Some orators refuse to practice their speeches beforehand, as they think this will ruin the spontaneity of their talk. Various writers use the same manual typewriter with which they wrote the book that won them a particular accolade.

Human beings enjoy routine. It provides a sense of stability and a sense of participatory fulfilment

Francesa Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, accompanied by Kathleen Vohs and Yajin Wang of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, carried out a series of studies which investigated how ritual changed the experience of consuming different foods. In a study, chocolate was used, and participants were asked to ritualistically taste the chocolate, by way of a ritual. They reported finding the chocolate more flavourful.  A similar test was used for eating carrots, which when eaten ritualistically, was enjoyed more.

This evidence suggests that when there is personal involvement, it becomes the driver of these effects. ‘Rituals help people to feel more deeply involved in their consumption experience, which in turn heightens its perceived value’. Harvard Business Review [4]

A ritual can help to reduce anxiety, calm worry by acting as a distraction, be a mindfulness technique that supports focus, and when practiced with others it can create a sense of community and support. Rituals are meant to benefit our lives. It may be time to adjust your routine.

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Comment by Sha LéWilante on July 20, 2016 at 2:37pm

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