Why Your Rituals Matter

Every society has rituals to guide people through life stages like reaching adulthood, marriage and death. People also have personal rituals and habits that they stick to without always knowing why.

Many researchers have looked at the psychology of rituals, and they’ve found that even the most basic rituals can enhance people’s lives.

Take personal hygiene. You probably take “rituals” like brushing your teeth for granted, but just following the motions of doing these things can make you feel a little better about yourself. One study found that for people who tend to overestimate their body sizes (but not those who tend to underestimate), applying fragranced deodorant or antiperspirant immediately leads these people to improve the accuracy of their estimates.

Another study showed that people who perform ritualistic gestures before eating perceive food as more flavorful and worth savoring. The researchers focused their work on chocolate (who wouldn’t?) but also noted similar results for lemonade and carrots. Looking at possible reasons for this phenomenon, they found that people who engage in rituals tend to be more deeply engaged in their subsequent dining experience.

Of course, rituals aren’t just about putting on deodorant and eating chocolate. We also use rituals to cope with things like death.

Research published this month involving 390 hospice staff members and volunteers demonstrated that participants who used personally meaningful rituals were better able to manage the emotionally taxing nature of their work. Specifically, those who used rituals reported lower burnout and more feelings of being rewarded from the help they’d given their patients.

Other research has found that nurses tend to use certain behaviors to “switch on” the right mindset before work and switch it off after. Five common behaviors the study found were personal grooming, religious rituals, smoking and/or drinking coffee, socializing, and listening to music.

The bottom line is that having a few rituals that are significant to you can help you prepare for some activities, make it easier to deal with challenging situations, or just give you a little boost to start your day. So keep rituals in mind as part of your repertoire of coping tools, and know that the rituals you have are probably there for a reason!

Image: FreeImages.com/Eyup Salman


  1. Elizabeth J. Berger on June 27, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Your link to research of 390 hospice staff members is incorrectly directed to an unrelated article in a cosmetic journal.
    Please replace it; I would like to see the correct piece.

    • Neil Petersen on June 28, 2016 at 6:37 am

      Thanks for catching that. I’ve added the correct link.