‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, and the science is in on how simple acts of ceremony and routine—even a quiet “thank you” before meals—can make everything more meaningful. Here, how to incorporate ritual into your 2021 self-care schedule.
The Benefits of Ritual
Years ago, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Family Psychology published a 50-year review of the benefits of ritual. The study linked a lifestyle rich in ritual to greater marital satisfaction, academic achievement, self-worth, and stronger family bonds. There is a whole suite of research that supports the importance of having ceremony in your life. Science shows that simple rituals around Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, chores, regular bedtimes, worship, and family dinners are also linked to stronger immunity, quicker recovery times from colds, and overall better health in children.10
While the research has not yet identified why rituals work, a University of Toronto study found that performing a ritual before a stressful task reduced anxiety and sensitivity to failure, compared to completing the task without performing a ritual. The study also found that rituals boost confidence and improve performance, even with people who do not believe in the benefits of practicing rituals.11,12
What are Your Rituals?
A ritual could be singing a song when you wake up or while you make the bed; lighting a candle or smudging; exercising; reading; writing; saying a mantra, prayer, or blessing before a meal (or any time); opening a bottle of wine; a hot bath with aromatherapy; or anything that you routinely do to make you feel content and complete.
A ritual is not a random gesture. And rituals should be repeated habits done by yourself, not by someone else. Listening to someone else say a blessing or prayer for a meal, or asking your partner to go make the coffee or tea defeats the purpose.
The latest research in the field of behavioral epigenetics shows that both normal and abnormal behaviors and belief systems can epigenetically alter our DNA.2,3
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Eating as Ritual in Ayurveda
In many families around the world, perhaps since the invention of TV dinners and TV trays in the 1960s, both children and adults have become conditioned to eat in front of a screen, distracted from their food. This has become the new ritual!
But Ayurveda suggests that cultivating a sattvic or peaceful state of mind while eating may be the greatest ritual of all.
Remember Pavlov’s research in which dogs were trained to salivate when they heard the sound of a metronome? Similarly, you can trigger a salivation response by performing a pre-meal ritual like saying grace.9 If you do this before every meal, your brain will associate saying grace with food and then trigger the digestive process. The ritual of eating can be the simple act of dining, eating together as a family, or enjoying the company of others. And a pre-meal ritual can be as simple as a brief, but intentional “thank you.”
One study, in the journal Obesity, showed that children in families that ate dinner together away from the TV in a kitchen or dining room had healthier weight and lower BMI (body mass index) than children in families that did not eat together or ate in front of the TV.5
Other studies have found that eating mindfully by slowing down and paying attention to your food, may reduce overeating, compulsive eating, and obesity, and support healthier glycemic control for diabetics.6,7,8
Based on the science around the gut-brain connection, which suggests our gut microbiome can alter our moods and emotional states, and vice versa, it’s possible that the mindfulness and presence created by ritual can also impact the microbes in your gut, helping you enjoy, digest, and savor the meal better.
Harvard Study Suggests Pre-Meal Ritual Benefits
A study out of Harvard Business School, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, suggests that a meal with a pre-meal ritual may actually provide a better meal experience than a meal without a pre-meal ritual.
In the study, participants were divided into two groups: ritual and non-ritual.
In phase one of the study, the first pre-meal ritual consisted of the participants cutting a chocolate bar in half. They opened only one half and enjoyed that half. Then they were allowed to open the other half and eat it—a very simple ritual.
In phase two of the study, a ritual was created around eating a carrot. Participants were asked to hit the table five times and close their eyes for five seconds before eating the carrot.
In both study phases, the carrot and chocolate were enjoyed more as compared to control groups who did not take part in a ritual.
Additionally, participants in the ritual groups took more time to eat and were actually willing to pay more for the carrot and chocolate after the experience of the ritual.
The study demonstrated that when a ritual was performed before eating, the food tasted better and delivered more satisfaction than when there was no pre-eating ritual.1,2
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What are your rituals? Share in the comments! And watch my Facebook Live on rituals for more ideas.