Many cultures, religions, and groups implement rituals in times of crisis or urgency. Even outside of these structured systems, many individuals often intuitively develop personal superstitions and rituals in their lives. For me, it was a lucky mechanical pencil I would rely on to take all of my math tests in high school and a favorite dress I would wear to give presentations and talks in college. Whether they are intended to bring “good luck,” healing, or closure, many studies find that superstitions and rituals can actually influence the outcome of an event! For example, for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, taking part in some kind of mourning ritual or ceremony appears to accelerate the process of healing . Similarly, researchers find that priming or activating a superstitious belief (e.g., giving someone a lucky charm, telling someone to “break a leg”) often improves performance on a given task .
Without getting into speculation about magical forces and powers, we can still consider the “active ingredients” of these practices. In this post, we will explore these powerful elements of rituals and ask ourselves: How can we bring a little bit of everyday magic into our lives? I’ve identified a few key psychological characteristics of rituals and suggestions for action. I hope you find these useful!
Invoking intention. Despite our romanticized view of human behavior as uniquely rational and intentional, we find that most of human behavior is much like any other animal behavior: entirely habitual/automatic, and deeply rooted in evolutionary adaptation. What is interesting about rituals is that they require an element of intention or purposeful action. Whether it is an ancestral dance or movement that is dedicated to invoking a divine presence, a tea ritual that is intended as an honorable offering, or a purification ritual that is aimed towards inducing a sense of renewal to participants, most rituals begin with a specific purpose. Anytime we reach beyond automatic behavior and unconscious habits, we are already experiencing something unique and truly special. In the practice of yoga, we find that even something as basic as breathing can become a powerful experience when it is done with focus and intention.
Try it: Set aside a specific time of the day, week, month, or year for conscious and purposeful action. Take stock of your personal and emotional desires and needs at the time: What do you crave the most in your life at this time. Are you seeking safety and protection? If so, perhaps you can engage in an action that makes you feel physically strong and safe. Do you desire deep companionship? If so, set aside time to gather with close friends or like-minded individuals (even strangers) in a setting that promotes deep connection (sharing personal stories, embracing vulnerability, letting go of self-consciousness). Perhaps you are seeking healing and relief from emotional and physical pain? Set aside time to acknowledge, sit with it, allowing for space to consciously witness yourself in this experience of pain. Make time for restorative and comforting actions, like taking a bath or giving yourself a massage, all done with a focus on and intention for healing.
Claiming control. Another important aspect of rituals is that they allow us to claim control over something that is otherwise seemingly impossible to control. This is an aspect of ritual that has been particularly important in the context of mourning and bereavement, where it is impossible to control situations of loss . Rituals provide us a means to organize an otherwise chaotic emotional experience. Through repetition of behaviors and systematic procedures, we are able to bring a sense of order over even the most seemingly uncontrollable experiences .
Try it: Think about a situation in your life that makes you feel powerless. Think about the BIG STUFF: financial, emotional, romantic, and existential. See if you can create an action around this that symbolizes stepping into action and power. The important part about this is not that you somehow become almighty in the face of life’s challenges, but simply the fact that it represents your desire to take hold of the situation. This idea allows you to rethink your misfortune in a way that gives you a sense of control and power. If you are able to identify even a narrow opening that will allow you to feel like you have some power in the situation, you will find a sense of relief. In many rituals, these actions are quite abstract. In grieving for lost loved ones, we know we cannot bring them back to life. However, we can set aside time every year to remember them, honor them by enjoying their favorite foods, or visiting their favorite places.
These rituals can also be adapted to be more pragmatic and concrete. For example, facing financial limitations can be quite devastating to our quality of life, limiting our ability to enjoy our favorite activities for lack of time, money, and other resources. However, you can create a system to help you organize your money, like setting aside a certain dollar amount for monthly or weekly savings. You can even introduce symbolic action into this otherwise mundane ritual by creating an intentional space to deposit your savings (e.g., a beautifully colored box, a shrine of auspicious symbols and images).
If you only just believe. Rituals are often rooted in a deep sense of faith or belief, whether it is religious or personal. People who engage in a ritual often do it with a belief or expectation that it will provide extra support for them. As such, people who engage in rituals often experience a boost in self-efficacy or confidence that they can and will succeed. Your internalized beliefs and expectations about yourself and others can absolutely shape your outcomes . In other words, if my “magical pencil” made me feel a sense of calm and confidence taking my math tests, it’s likely that I actually performed better on my tests, because my anxiety did not affect my test performance.
Try it: Engage in a ritual or intentional action that you find personally meaningful. Think and write about how you believe it will be effective in changing your own life. The more we think about and rationalize these ideas, the more ingrained they become. So don’t be afraid to think about it, talk about it, and invest in it.
Transcending the hedonic treadmill. I have these friends who are madly in love, despite being in a relationship for over two decades. I swear they act like teenagers who have a crush on each other. They are definitely an exception to the norm!
Research shows us that humans are really skilled at adapting to life’s highs and lows . This is great in the face of negative life experiences, it means that we can and will recover happiness in the aftermath of most negative life events. However, it also means that boosts or increases to happiness are rarely sustained over time. Imagine, YOU FOUND YOUR SOULMATE or YOUR DREAM JOB! How long can you sustain your joy and gratitude for this event? How long before you start to take life’s gifts for granted? Sadly, research shows that it’s very likely your joy and gratitude will fade over time. The good news, rituals allow us to transcend the ordinary and mundane, bringing a divine element into everyday actions.
Try it: Take something that you do every day: eat a meal, dinner with your romantic partner, even washing your dishes… and create a ritual around it! Light candles, turn on music, meditate or pray before or after it, recite a mantra or chant. Use this as an opportunity to step beyond the everyday rhythm of your life, to stop and observe your life through radically techni-colored classes.
Connecting to nature. Many rituals also tap into one of the richest source of healing available to us: nature. Rituals often create an opportunity for people to connect more deeply with natural elements, like fire, water, and earth. For more information about the role of nature and healing, please check out the work of Dacher Keltner and Craig Anderson, as described in this
Try it: Visit a natural space, like a forest or beach with a specific intention. Fire up your awareness, take in as much sensory experience as you possibly can. If you are unable to visit nature, try bringing it into your home. Light up your fire pit, watch an amazing nature documentary, take a bath, take a meditative walk in your backyard with no shoes on. Allow yourself to receive these sensory messages and the benefits will become inevitably apparent to you.
I hope these tips will help you amplify the level on your quality of life. Thanks for reading! Wishing you a magical day!
1. Norton, M. I., & Gino, F. (2014). Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 266-272.
2. Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21, 1014-1020.
3. Legare, C. H., & Souza, A. L. (2012). Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural. Cognition, 124, 1-15.
4. Rosenthal, R. (1994). Interpersonal expectancy effects: A 30-year perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 176-179.
5. Frederick, S., and Loewenstein, G. 1999. Hedonic adaptation. in D. Kahneman, E. Diener, and N. Schwartz [eds]. Scientific Perspectives on Enjoyment, Suffering, and Well-Being. New York. Russell Sage Foundation.