Rituals and Routine – a secret to mental health

by Frank Muller

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So often I have heard that memorization, rote routine, saying the same thing over and over is not “authentic” or “becomes meaningless’ in repetition. That has always struck me as somewhat absurd.

Would a spouse or child ever tire of hearing them told they are loved? Would a group of friends ever tire of lifting a glass of beer or wine and saying “cheers”? Would we ever tire of our morning routine of a nice cup of coffee? I for one know I would not.

How much beauty can come into our soul if we memorize great poems that inspire us, Scripture versus that instruct us, policy manuals that inform us, textbooks that enlighten us? We are made freer to the extent we grab hold of a good thing and savor it gently daily.

In fact, our own anecdotal observations of rituals and routines confirms just the opposite. They do not become less meaningful, they become more meaningful. In fact, their meaning over time grows beyond the capability of mere words to even express. For myself, I love to be told I am loved. That does not get old if it is heartfelt even in its repetition. Heck, it feels better to be told I am loved even when I know they are grumpy at me.

However, research demonstrates that the power of rituals goes even further – they can increase our perception of value, too.  In other words, if employees perform rituals as part of their jobs, they are likely to find their jobs more rewarding.  And if consumers use a ritual to experience your product, they are likely to enjoy it more and be willing to pay more for it.

Kathleen Vohs and Yajin Wang of the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota, along with Francesa Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, conducted a series of studies looking at how ritual changed the experience of consuming a variety of foods.

In one study, participants tasted chocolate, either ritualistically (i.e., with the instruction to break the bar in half without unwrapping it, unwrap half the bar and eat it, and then unwrap the other half and eat it), or as they normally would.

Those who performed the ritual reported finding the chocolate more flavorful and enjoying it more.  They also took more time to savor it and were willing to pay nearly twice as much for more of it.

The social sciences show us that the more successful a person is at a thing the more the researchers noted that they had “ritualized” the process of acquiring that expertise. It became one habit building upon another each building a rhythm in their existence all aligned to the achievement of a goal. I still think back to my university days when I would seclude myself in the same library, on the same floor, in the same remote cubicle because it was in that routine, I found focus. It was when someone was sitting in my cubicle, well at least in my view, my grades suffered.

When we look into the lives of those who underperform their talent levels, we see striking patterns. They do not have firm bed and rise times. Perhaps Ben Franklin was on to something? In general, those who discipline their life (especially the time at which they rise) their productivity simply increases. Whether it is a more efficient use of their time that occurs or a biophysical benefit of our body knowing it is time to rise and become effective, the effect is greater effectiveness.

Behavioral psychologists show us that a learned inability to habitually focus destroys long term effectiveness and most importantly happiness. It is certainly true that some people can multitask their way into high levels of productivity whilst it is also true those same people die earlier, suffer more heart attacks, have higher instances of cancer and other diseases and worse yet higher probabilities of broken families and marriages. Thier ritual is no ritual, and it is often disastrous in the long haul whilst in our economy it may prosper monetarily in the short to mid run.

In the spiritual life, repeating a simple prayer like the “Our Father” may seem to be monotonous but over decades of that repetition in a deep state of focus great richness and spiritual fruit may be found. I would bet that the person who progresses the most is one who focuses on rituals and routines than in one whose mind and eye flirts from subject to subject never focusing on anything except at a trite level.

Whether we are a husband or wife, brother or sister, colleague or friend each of us can benefit from rituals and routines. Whether it is a monthly get together over a bottle of wine to talk about life, or a weekly breakfast with your child at McDonalds just to tell jokes and smile, whether it is that annual vacation to the same place (where everyone is saying not again) then decades later those grown children reminisce about those rituals and routines with misty eyes.

Do not condemn rituals, embrace them. Do not ignore habits, form them. Do not reject conformity, be liberated by it.

When we learn to create routines that are centered on the good and we reinforce those routines with those we love we are creating the space where meaning can be discovered. Sometimes, there just is no place like home and the gentle reassuring patterns for good we create for ourselves and those we love.

May Peace be with us all.

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