380: How Rituals Enrich Our Lives IF We Choose and Engage with Intention
Wednesday May 1, 2024

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Brown Betty (cobalt in my case) teapot full of steeped black tea. A petite dish full of healthy nibbles. A favorite French candle lit offering a gentle reminder of Paris streets. The ‘focus’ on the computer has been turned on for a handful of hours, and the pups race to the office as I carry the tray with my teacup and goodies to begin the work day. But wait! First, before I commence my work, Norman and Nelle receive their treat, something they savor each time Mom types away at the computer. With everything situated, a gaze out to the front walk where the peach and chokecherries’ branches sway in the breeze announces the time has arrived to write as the pups settle in for their nap following our morning walk and the room becomes quiet except for the unsyncopated tap, tap on the keyboard.

Rituals, whether designed by us solely for ourselves, or legacy rituals, or relationship or group rituals that involve others, give us more than can be imagined to deepen the quality of our life than we thought possible prior to fully engaging and incorporating them into our lives.

You may recognize Dr. Michael Norton’s name, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, as he co-wrote a book I thoroughly enjoyed and often sited for over a decade on the effects of money and happiness with Elizabeth Dunn, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, as their work has been sited on TSLL as well). Released just this past April, Norton’s new book, The Ritual Effect, shares the research behind the effects of rituals on our daily life, and while he begins with sharing rituals’ origins which we might often imagine when we hear the word, those “rigid, communal practices” which he describes as legacy rituals, the primary focus rests upon daily life and all of the potential benefits rituals can give us whether it be in our daily routine, or when we step into a new life chapter, or when we say goodbye to someone for any number of reasons, how we work, how we connect and strength relationships, how we design holidays with family and blended families, how to heal and how to recognize when rituals are causing the problem of division for example or exclusion.

For our purposes in today’s episode we’re going to focus primarily on exactly what constitutes a ritual, the importance of having them in our lives and where to incorporate them, as well as sprinkle examples throughout the conversation (so be sure to tune in to the audio version of this episode if you are reading the Show Notes here on the blog :)).

What is the difference between a Ritual and a Habit?

Here on TSLL, we’ve shared an abundance about both rituals and habits. It is important to note that both are greatly beneficial in living a life of contentment, and so to know the difference between the two will be helpful as well as we tailor our life to fit our needs, dreams and strengths.

Essentially, the distinction between a ritual and a habit comes down to What versus How, as explained by Norton. Let’s break it down.

“Habit is the what. It’s something we do.” The action such as make our tea, take our walk, sing that song, anything that we engage in presently. Anything. Professionally or personally. At home, outdoors, while traveling, when sitting at our desk, you get the idea. Something we’ve talk about before in episode #272, it is when bad habits have been conditioned into our daily lives and have become a default, something we don’t think about, that we realize the habit needs to change. Knowing how to do this, so that the good habit becomes engrained into our daily routine, something we don’t think about, but just do, is the key (and what we discuss in depth in episode #272).

The goal of having habits is to not have to think about them. We just do them essentially automatically when a particular prompt occurs – the day begins, so we begin our routine of brushing our teeth, stretches, feeding our pups and cats, etc. We don’t think, we just do. Action. Norton goes on to share, “we want that good habit to become automatic. We effortlessly, mindlessly, perform routines that take us from point A to point B.” With these good habits, we bolster the life that is nourishing, cares for what we value and if the habits are leading to a goal, eventually we arrive there with each action adding up.

Now you may be saying, but doesn’t a ritual involve action as well? Yes, you would be correct. But “a ritual is not just the action but the particular way we enact it—the how“.

How we partake in the ritual, what precisely we do, “how we complete it. Rituals are also deeply and inherently emotional. Unlike most habits, rituals provoke feelings . . . it’s the emotion and meaning we bring to the behaviors.” In other words, it is what we add to the action we are engaging in. Why we are engaging in them, what is our intention in doing so.

Another way to look at the difference, “Good habits automate us, helping us get things done. Rituals animate us, enhancing and enchanting our lives with something more.”

What do we Gain by Incorporating Rituals into our Lives?

Savoring become a well-toned skill

  • We experience savoring in our everydays, which is an intentional act, and our daily everyday life is enriched. From the moment we wake up until we thoughtfully bring our days to a close, our entire day can be elevated.

We put ourselves in the driver’s seat as to how we use technology

  • When we live with intention, creating rituals to savor throughout our days and lives, we bring more meaning to our days and thus live in the present which finds us incorporating rituals that optimize and capture our full attention.

We enhance our well-being

  • Research of emotions, specifically emodiversity show that “the diversity of our different shades of emotions—amusement, elation, awe and gratitude, but also sadness, fear and anxiety—adds up to richer emotional levels and links to our overall well-being . . . the variety and relative abundance of emotions we experience—not just the predominance of positive emotions—predicts our well-being.”
  • What rituals provide that habits cannot are deeper and more variation of emotional experiences. “Ritual offers the possibility of transforming activities as ordinary as morning hygiene, household chores, or daily exercise from automated to animated experiences—conjuring up delight or wonder or peace.”
  • Notice that this all must be a choice, to turn our helpful habits – a helpful morning routine full of habits that are done without forethought, into a ritual that fully engaging us and that we have designed with thought and care to what will enliven us and help us to savor what we are doing.

We provide a way to manage nervousness and successfully do what we know we can do

  • While we are responsible for learning the necessary skills, putting in the hours of focused practice and making the necessary investment, after all, no ritual is a magic wand, what the ritual does is remind us to focus, do what we know we can do and get out of our own way letting go of unhelpful thoughts and worries.
  • It is just as important to note that we not let rituals slide into being superstitious. In other words, when we are not able to do exactly what we need to do in our ritual, to then let our mind slip into an unthoughtful doubt that now we cannot do what we are already prepared to do. In other words, rituals are passengers along our journey that we invite to come with us, not the driver of how or where things will go. They enhance, but otherwise, don’t distract if not present. Keep rituals in their place and you at the steering wheel, and you are going to have a wonderful journey.

Where to Incorporate Rituals into Our Life?

While we may have legacy rituals in our life, and in such a case, make sure, as we have talked about before here on TSLL and in my 3rd book, that you know why you are doing them and that they align with what you value, otherwise, these are examples of how rituals can be unhelpful and drain us unnecessarily as we are not living consciously nor fully engaged with our life, the importance of welcoming signature rituals into your life cannot be understated.

A Ritual Signature as Norton calls it are just what you might imagine: personal. “Creating them inspires a sense of ownership, of having imbued them with and used them to express a sense of self that is unique.” It is the how that makes these rituals first rituals by definition (‘how’) and uniquely tailored to us and what we value, what we need, what will elevate the quality of our lives. Only we can know what these vital signatures will be once we have taken the time to fully get to know ourselves. These ritual signatures add to why we value the life we love living, and the more we thoughtfully incorporate them into our days, the more amazing our life becomes.

When we design our own rituals, we add more meaning to our lives, and when we put our signature on these rituals – a particular tea picked up during our travels, a particular time of day, in other words the details are thoughtfully tended to – that is when we wake up our emotions and it becomes a ritual rather than a habit. We are savoring because either memories are involved, reminders of joyful moments, or a focusing of what matters of how we most enjoy living and why we live the way we do and where we are going, etc.

We mentioned how rituals help us to savor our life all the more, and this is where you get to design your life of rituals. This is where you now look at your life and elevate the ordinary in ways that will speak to you. As Norton reminds, “there are endless ways to enhance and even enchant your day”. From rituals around consumption of meals and drink, afternoon tea, an aperitif, dessert, breakfast, you get the idea, turn it into a ritual. Carefully choose not only the ingredients used, but the utensils and plates, napkin and where you dine so that you will enjoy what you are going to be eating or drinking.

When we design daily and weekly rituals, (I share many ideas in these two posts – here, here and oodles more are shared here) we are generating more reasons to savor and thus “generating more everyday joy, an easily accessible and often inexpensive means of transforming the ordinary into something more.”

“Consumption rituals remind us to savor, drawing more joy out of each moment of our lives, each memory, every sip and any bite.” —Michael Norton, The Ritual Effect

Another area to introduce rituals that are signature rituals is rediscovery rituals. Whether it is the cycle and thus return of the new season, perhaps you do something signature each time spring or fall, each of the season arrives that is savored, special and unique to you and perhaps someone you love. Or maybe on your birthday, while celebrating the start of your new personal year, you also reflect in your journals (not dwelling), but to serve as a reminder of growth and deepen appreciation. This is also where time capsules may come into play as is discussed in the book. What rediscovery does is ‘wake up’ everyday, ordinary moments and help us to stay more fully present and aware of what is right now because, as the time capsule and our journals remind, such a way of life always eventually changes somehow and in some way.

Yet another area of our lives that I have found to be powerfully necessarily to bolster our self-confidence and inner trust is to engage in rites of passage rituals that we design. Yes, there are many legacy rituals that signify a new start of a new way of life – weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs, graduations, etc. – but each of us has chapters we live through that aren’t always widely known to those in our lives. However, we know they are significant, we know how difficult reaching a particular new chapter was, and how important it was to us, so by designing signature rituals to mark the passage from one chapter to a next, we honor ourselves and we move forward into the life we are now ready for knowing it to be true.

Maybe it is moving from one position at work to another, or leaving or retiring from one career to another. These are not small nothings. This is significant and doing something to mark this moment reminds us of this truth. For example, when I retired from teaching, I know some people didn’t understand why I used the word retiring. After all, I was 40 years old and been a teacher for 20 years, my pension isn’t going to kick in yet and I would be stepping into being my own boss with TSLL. However, for me, I was retiring from teaching. I have shared in detail why I am so grateful to have been a teacher for two decades, but because I was no longer going to teach in an traditional setting, I wanted to honor this career, a calling for me, I invested heavily into and felt great passion for. And when during our staff end of the year gathering they honored me with a retirement gift that they gave the other retirees, I was deeply chuffed and grateful for that acknowledgement. Even if they had not done so, I had planned and engaged in activities that would do so; however, part of the reason the school and staff honored what was my retirement was because I stated it as such and in my heart and being it was my retirement from teaching.

When it comes to relationship rituals, the key is for both parties to view the action as a ritual and see the value of doing so, see it as special and thus studies have bore out the benefits, relationship with shared rituals are stronger as couples express a “greater sense of gratitude for their partner”. The intention of the action, the motivation behind doing it, the how that turns that choice from a habit to a ritual that is deeply savored by both. And the rituals, just as is the case for our daily routine and the rituals we create for ourselves, need not be grand or expensive. This is partially why shared rituals with our partner are so powerful, they elevate the ordinary moments into something more enjoyable and treasured.

As well, when it comes to mourning the loss of a loved one, the loss of a partner, a parent, anyone who we dearly care about, which includes our pets, engaging in rituals – designed by us or legacy rituals, so long as we are invested in them and fully support what they do – so the details, the how is important to us – the rituals help us work through the grieving process while keeping that love alive.

When it comes to work, both with your colleagues and on your own, rituals can be helpful in deepening our commitment and productivity as well as helping us to appreciate what we do and as well as feel appreciated. As someone who now works from home, as I know many of you do as well, creating rituals at home to demarcate the start and end of the work day are not only uplifting but necessary for our well-being. But even if you commute to the office, not only the rituals you engage in while working, but how you end the work day and move into your personal life, rituals such as the music you listen to or podcast you turn on when you step out of the office and into your car or onto the train, helps you to begin to unwind and settle into life away from the office.

While many areas of our life invite the opportunity to add rituals, it will not be the quantity of the rituals but the quality of the rituals that will infuse your life with more meaning, more appreciation and more to savor. Simple changes or intentional transform ordinary routines “with extraordinary power”. Rituals provide the magic so to speak that when we put in just a little more effort, a little more thoughtful exploration of what speaks to us, so self-knowledge, requiring us to bravely add our dash of individuality, we tailor our everydays to be, from beginning to end, days that we look forward to each and every one.

Asparagus, Courgette w/Ricotta Savory Spring Tart

~click here for the recipe

Episode 331 3


4 thoughts on “380: How Rituals Enrich Our Lives IF We Choose and Engage with Intention

  1. Shannon, thank you so much for this illuminating episode of your podcast! I’ve realized that what I considered rituals in my daily life were actually habits and your detailed analysis of the difference between the two has really been eye-opening. Once again you provided me with invaluable tools to savour and find contentment 🙂

    1. Laura,

      Thank you for stopping by and happy to discuss these two and break them down. I appreciated the direct simplicity the author used to teach the difference and wanted to pass it along. 🙂 Wishing you a wonderful day and upcoming new month full of lovely intentioned rituals. 🙂

  2. Thank you Shannon! I loved this episode and your other offers about this topic. I think you’ve really homed in on the crux of living one’s best life with this and I really appreciate all your work around it. I have a way to go with savouring as I’m often rushing through things, but your posts and podcasts provide a lot joyful inspiration! Merci! 😘😁😘

  3. I look forward to checking out the posts recommended, to get specific ritual inspiration. I’ve incorporated a few in my life but am not completely sure they work as well, or at all, as they should. Maybe dedicated intention is the problem but I don’t want to feel controlled by them. What is that line? I have days I fall off track, even though they’re times and things I
    adore. Then I question whether I’m dedicated and wonder if it needs tweaking or replaced. Like you say, takes time!

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