a ritual, just for you

Defining a ritual seems a difficult task. While the first thought often goes to religion, personal rituals have permeated our lives in ways that often go unnoticed. From birthdays, to funerals, to the words we tell ourselves before an interview - rituals are, and can be, a part of our lives on a daily basis.

Beyond the comfort of routine provided by a ritual, they can also have significantly positive effects on our psyche and mental wellbeing. In an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, the significance of personal rituals in modulating our experiences and behaviours is gaining profound recognition, and they can be implemented to improve our lives.

Rituals, even those seemingly arbitrary and novel, have a remarkable influence over our neural regulatory systems. Studies suggest that engaging in ritualistic actions can impact the brain’s performance-monitoring system, specifically by muting the error-related negativity (ERN). This dampening of ERN correlates with a person being less affected by self-generated errors and uncertainties, leading to a decreased experience of distress, anxiety, and uncertainty.

Interestingly, this muted ERN does not predict a decrease in performance. This unique dissociation suggests that rituals may actually regulate performance distress without negatively effecting behaviour, helping individuals find an “anxiety sweet-spot” that is conducive to effective control.

Rituals, stripped of cultural and personal meaning, have predictive effects on behaviour, suggesting their foundational role in shaping human experiences. The act of engaging in ritual helps imbue meaning to otherwise arbitrary actions, and help to encourage effective performance through the automation of certain steps which prevent the effects of poor conscious control.

Moreover, recent studies, such as those by Brooks et al. (2016), have demonstrated that even one-off rituals could significantly alleviate anxiety and improve performance, with repetition further amplifying these benefits. These findings have found benefits in a range of various contexts, suggesting that rituals can be actively used by individuals to improve performance and lower uncertainties.

Beyond performance and emotional regulation, personal rituals also play a pivotal role in enhancing well-being and compassion. Individuals across diverse professions who engage in personally meaningful rituals report increased compassion satisfaction and decreased burnout.

Additionally, engaging in rituals, whether public or personal, fosters a sense of connectedness and meaning. These practices act as protection against anxiety and distress, enhancing overall job satisfaction, reducing turnover, and cultivating growth. They embody a universal mechanism that transforms end-of-life experiences into broader contexts of universal meaning, offering solace and support.

The myriad studies and research on personal rituals underscore their profound influence in shaping our neural landscapes, modulating our emotions, enhancing our performances, and fostering our well-being. In a world fraught with uncertainties and conflicts, the power of personal rituals emerges as a beacon of hope, offering a pathway towards resilience, meaning, and holistic growth. Whether through the simplicity of daily practices or the richness of communal ceremonies, rituals encapsulate the essence of our shared humanity, anchoring us in a sea of constant change.

What are some of your rituals?




(Sources: Hobson et al., 2017. Grant, 2013, Hobson, Bonk, Inzlich, 2017. Thomas et al., 2016.)