Are there things that you do in certain settings, at particular times, that evoke a feeling and remind you of what is important? When I step up to bat in softball, I tap the bat twice just past the plate, “squish the bug” with my back foot, and pinch the brim of my cap. I jiggle a ribbon with little charms on it that hangs from my rearview mirror before starting to drive—and more vigorously after a near miss. As monthly as I can manage, I walk with my kids and siblings to a special hill to watch the full moon rise, eat round cookies, drink hot tea from a thermos, and honor my late mother.

Three friends clinking coffee cups together in a

A 2002 article by Barbara Fiese in the Journal of Family Psychology concluded that people who engaged in more routines and rituals felt more competent at parenting and more satisfied with their marriages, and had children who were more well-adjusted. Other evidence suggests that rituals bring people together through physically synchronous behaviors, shared beliefs and aspirations, and a warmhearted blend of humility and common humanity.

In his new book, The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton shares the real benefits to cultivating and regularly engaging in rituals. I spoke with Norton about what that looks like in our lives and at work.

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Emiliana Simon-Thomas: What is a ritual? How do you even define the term?

Michael Norton, Ph.D.

Michael Norton: The thing that comes to mind if we say the word ritual is people in robes, candles, chanting, maybe in the mountains somewhere. And those are rituals, for sure, but the kind that I got really interested in are mainly the ones that are a little more everyday, particularly those that we make up ourselves. They’re often extremely mundane, but we imbue them with a lot of meaning.

The very same boring task can be just that—a task or a habit—or if it takes on a special meaning, then it can start to become a ritual. I was talking to athletes the other day, and I asked them: “How do you tie your shoes?” All of them had a very specific way of tying their shoes, which shoe first and the laces and how tight. And then I asked: “How do you feel if you do it a different way?” And they were like: “I never have.”

When you get more emotion and more meaning, that’s when things move away from a dry habit—it’s more than just getting the thing done. It’s how you do it and how you feel about it.

EST: Why is having a ritual instead of a habit or routine helpful? Why is it good for well-being?

MN: If your habits are just habits and you just go through them like a robot, every single day, always get up at 6, then always go for this run for this amount of time, always eat lettuce, whatever it might be, it’s an emotionless day. If you lived a whole life like that, I think you might look back and be like, I wish I had done more different things than just perfect habits.

Adding ritual to those things fills them with emotion. All of a sudden, tying your shoes makes you feel like “I’m gonna win this race!” But if you can’t tie your shoes the way you want, then you feel off. So you can’t just add rituals to life and then you’ll be happy for the rest of your days. When we add rituals to our lives, they come with real possibilities, but also some drawbacks. Rituals don’t always help, and sometimes they can get in the way.

There’s some very cool research on baseball players when they’re at bat. On average, this sample of baseball players made 83 distinct movements before each swing: touching their hat, adjusting their batting gloves and the bat, and all this stuff. They’re doing these rituals that they’ve been doing for years to feel like, OK, I’m ready. Now I can hit a 100-mile-an-hour fastball. That’s a hard thing to get amped up for. There’s a story of a baseball prospect and the scouts basically said, “This guy has so many pre-at-bat rituals that he can’t get out of his head.” If you kept doing them while the pitch came in, obviously you strike out, right? So we know there’s a limit on rituals where they get to be interfering rather than beneficial.

EST: It sounds like rituals help when they’re calming in contexts where there’s uncertainty. Is this why rituals are so prominent in religious and spiritual contexts—because they’re about mysteries of what it means to be human and alive?

MN: Yes, I do think that we turn to rituals when there is more stress and more uncertainty. There’s really fascinating research on rain dances across cultures, across the world. You see that partly it’s predicted by not just regions that don’t have a lot of rain, but regions that have a lot of weather variability. If there’s never any rain, we can just plan that we’re just never going to have rain. But if maybe we’ll have a lot of rain, maybe we’ll have no rain—that kind of uncertainty—those are the cultures where these kinds of practices are most likely to emerge.

EST: Can you tell me about rituals in workplaces? Does ambiguity of the marketplace ever prompt something akin to a rain dance?

MN: At the New York Stock Exchange, there’s the ringing of the bell, where different groups come in and sometimes celebrities come in—a “let’s bless the day by the ceremonial ringing of the bell.”

Rituals can come into play even in contexts that are supposed to be rational and financial. But the main place we see rituals at work is actually in teams, and then also how people leave work behind at the end of the day. If we just ask people, “Do you and your team have any activities that you do regularly that are special, that are unique to your team?,” teams that say yes tend to report that they find their work more meaningful than teams that don’t have something like that.

EST: How would you recommend a company create a new ritual that would yield these benefits?

MN: The rituals that employees tend to tell us about are ones they came up with themselves. It’s less that I would go to a company and say, “The research shows that if you do seven stomps and 12 claps, that’s the key thing everybody needs to do,” because that’s not what we see. Instead, give people space and time to see if they have a ritual already. You can ask them, “What do you do when you start meetings? What do you do for lunch? Or do you have any inside jokes?”

There’s usually a culture on teams, and you can give them the space to come up with it themselves. First off, it’s more fun, but also it’s less mandated and it comes from them instead of from management.

EST: Let’s imagine there’s an energized employee who has rituals and fulfillment at work, and then they drive home and their home life feels very mundane and tedious. Do rituals also enrich personal relationships?

Cover of The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions (Scribner, 2024, 288 pages)

MN: Even on the way home, we see people engaging in rituals to try to separate work from their home life because we’re supposed to be a different person in those two contexts. We also want to leave work behind—the stress and the worries—so that we can be present with our family.

We did some research with emergency room nurses. We asked them, “What do you do at the end of the day?” And they had some very elaborate rituals to try to leave work behind. One person came home, always took a shower, and had a beer in the shower. They imagined as the water swirled down the drain that the hospital and the stress were swirling down the drain, as well. People who do these kinds of activities have a little bit better separation between work and home.

We ask couples and families the exact same question that we ask teams at work, which is, “Do you have something that you make sure to do regularly, that’s very special to you, that’s unique from other couples or families?” My favorite couple has this ritual where before they eat, they clink their forks together, which is so random. What could be more boring than a fork? But they’ve turned it into this cute little thing that nobody else does.

Looking at the data, couples that say they do those things report higher relationship satisfaction than couples that don’t. And we see the same thing with families. If we ask about Thanksgiving, people who say they have rituals are both more likely to keep gathering as a family, and the day is less stressful.

In my family, we do gratitude at the beginning of every dinner: “What are you grateful for?” Other families do other things; some families call out a win that they had that day and celebrate it. With these little rituals, you’re signaling that you’re a family, you’re signaling who you are as a family, and what you value and that you love each other.

We don’t know, however, if it’s families who already like each other who create rituals [or vice versa]. But you do see this really strong signal that when rituals are present, they’re associated with benefits for not just us as individuals, but our romantic partner and our kids, as well.

EST: What about life transitions or formative moments—is that a time when people are more likely to have certain kinds of rituals, and do those help?

MN: Sometimes people say, “I don’t have any rituals.” But I’ll ask them, “Have you ever finished something and then for some reason got a really ugly-looking robe and a hat that has a square on top of it with a tassel hanging off of it? And did you then in front of everybody go up on a stage and shake hands with someone and grab a scroll of paper that’s from the 14th century? And then take your hat off at the end and throw it away up in the air?” 

Of course, we’ve all engaged in rituals: if you’ve been to a wedding, if you’ve been to a funeral, if you’ve blown out candles on a birthday cake. We use these rituals when we make big transitions in life. Most cultures have something for kids, roughly between the age of 12 and 16, when they go from being a kid to an adult. All religions, many cultures have this kind of rite of passage in place. We do them many times in life; it isn’t just that one time and then we’re done.

Another big change in life is grief and loss—and we have rituals around that. Most cultures in the world, for example, have a color associated with a funeral. In the U.S., it’s black, but in other countries it’s white. Some countries it’s red; some countries it’s green. You wear these colors on the day of the funeral, and then there’s practices where you continue to wear that color for a little while afterward, so that people can see you’re grieving. If you’re still wearing black, then I know that you’re grieving. If you haven’t shaved in a very long time, I can guess that perhaps you’re grieving. The gatherings themselves give us social support, they pull us together with everyone we know, and then if we continue to wear the color, others can continue to help us with our grief.

EST: Is there anything else that you think would be valuable for readers to know?

MN: As a first step, I think about it less like “I’m going to come up with nine new rituals and start doing them” and more about taking an inventory of what you already do. Think of your morning, what do you do? When you get to work, what do you do? What do you do in your teams at work? What do you and your spouse do that’s special? What does your family do with your kids that’s special? Just see them; they’re happening already. If you don’t think you have them, you can ask your spouse or your children or your coworkers. They’ll tell you all your rituals.

It’s helpful just to own them, to recognize them. When you enact them intentionally like that, they can have a greater resonance. After they think about a ritual they’ve been doing for a while, people often laugh at themselves a little bit, in a nice way. Like, oh, we’re doing more fork clinking again. It adds something to the experience that’s free. If we can recognize it and name it, I think it can give it even more meaning.

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