Whimsical vs Ritual

Ritual has been a tradition since humans have existed.

But why? What’s the point? Why would we do something over and over again, and why go through all of that work just to do something small.

“We see in every culture—and throughout history—that people who perform rituals report feeling better,” says Norton, an associate professor in the Marketing unit at Harvard Business School. “But we didn’t know if the ritual caused the healing.”

What followed was a series of experiments in which Norton and fellow HBS Associate Professor Francesca Gino found that rituals indeed alleviate and reduce grief, even among people who don’t inherently believe in the efficacy of rituals. Further experiments showed that ritualistic behavior also enhances the experience of consuming food—including food as mundane as a carrot. Future experiments will delve into whether rituals affect productivity and morale in the workplace.

The Power of Rituals in Live, Death, and Business, Harvard Business School, 2013

So if we want to feel good, we can increase the chances of offsetting both the negativity bias and the peak-end effect, we can create a ritual and perform whatever normal actions we would perform within that ritual.

In one experiment, the researchers set out to determine whether rituals led to an increased sense of control, and whether that sense of control served to alleviate grief. To that end, they asked 247 individuals (recruited from Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk marketplace) to write about either the death of a loved one or the death of a relationship. Some participants were asked to include a description of a ritual they performed after suffering the loss; others were not.

Norton and Gino were surprised to discover that the majority of the recounted rituals were neither religious nor communal. Rather, they were personal, private, and occasionally angry—but in a controlled way. “We observed some amazing rituals,” he says. “One woman wrote about gathering all the pictures of her and her ex-boyfriend, taking them to the park where they met, and tearing them up-she made a point of saying ‘even the ones where I looked good,’ which I loved.”

After the writing exercise, all the participants completed a questionnaire, using a numbered scale to recall how much they felt out of control after the loss, as well as the extent to which they still grieved the person. Those who had described a personal ritual also reported feeling both more in control and less aggrieved after the writing exercise, indicating the power of merely reflecting on ritualistic behavior.

The Power of Rituals in Live, Death, and Business, Harvard Business School, 2013

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear speaks about how you can become 37x better at literally anything – with no prior talent – by using habits – a sort of ritual.

This sort of thinking is critical for everything from your personal life to friendship to business relationships.

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