Why You Should Make Time for Oddball Rituals

Why You Should Make Time for Oddball Rituals

My husband and I have developed a little ritual over the years. When one of us takes a trip, the other will make enchiladas when we’re reunited.

We’ve been making “Welcome Home Enchiladas” for so long that we can’t remember how it started (or why they must be chicken and green chile). But I look forward to them every time I go away.

Rituals, large and small, have existed throughout human history, said Dimitris Xygalatas, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and author of “Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.” From handshakes to wishes on a star, he said, rituals are acts regularly repeated in a specific manner (unlike traditions, which are customs or beliefs passed from one generation to the next).

Rituals can be religious or secular; they can range from traditional to offbeat. But even the small ones add richness to our lives, said Michael Norton, a professor of business administration at Harvard and author of the upcoming book “The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions.”

Life is full of uncertainty, Dr. Norton added, and rituals help us “insert some regularity into the process.” There’s evidence that they also alleviate performance anxiety, deepen relationships and make us feel more in control.

The beauty of establishing a ritual is that it’s easy. You simply decide to do it. Here’s how.

You can create a ritual around anything, Dr. Norton said. Look for opportunities, he said, to add a little levity, motivation or meaning to daily life.

His family does something he calls “Happy Meatloaf to You.” It started when meatloaf was on the menu in his home, and he had trouble getting his daughter to eat it.

“Meatloaf isn’t usually a very exciting dish,” he said, so his family put candles on it and started singing “Happy Meatloaf to You,” to the tune of “Happy Birthday to You.”

Dr. Xygalatas has developed an elaborate cappuccino-making ritual when he is working that involves “grinding the beans, making froth, the whole thing.”

“I’ll take one sip and leave it. Some 30 minutes later, I will make a new cup,” he explained, adding that the ritual drives his wife crazy but helps him focus.

There are always opportunities for new rituals. Most of us have heard of housewarmings, but I learned about “house cooling” parties when I came across a post on Instagram from Maree Mardesich, a photographer in St. George, Utah.

Her grandparents were moving out of their home after spending 45 years there, and they asked their extended family to form a circle and share memories.

Tears were shed, Mardesich said, but “it was a great way to say goodbye to the house where we had been together a million times.”

You can also commemorate life stages. In a book I wrote about menopause, I suggested throwing a “menopause shower” so that women could mark the milestone, just as they would at a baby or bridal shower. Why not take away some of the stigma and celebrate this life stage instead?

I ended up doing this for a friend. At the shower, those in attendance shared every tip we could think of, and gave her gifts like neck cream and hot flash spray.

“If it feels right, then it’s for you,” Dr. Xygalatas said. The reason rituals have stayed with us throughout human evolution, he said, “is that they make us feel better, and embracing their potential can help improve our quality of life.”

And don’t feel self-conscious about them either, Dr. Norton said. “People often have these little rituals and have never told anybody about them because they think that they’re weird,” he said. “But if every single person has a weird ritual that they’re not sharing, they’re not weird. They’re just hidden.”

In this spirit, I’ll disclose another one: This weekend my family is getting the Covid vaccine booster. When my daughter was small, I’d buy her ice cream after a shot. My husband and I have adopted this practice, too.

Rituals also build anticipation. I haven’t thought much about the shot, but I already know what flavor of ice cream I’m going to choose.

I’d love to hear some of your own offbeat rituals. Feel free to drop me a line!

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