A ritual is any meaningful or symbolic behavior that we believe helps us face a situation or overcome an obstacle.
Our daily lives are filled with small rituals that we believe benefit our lives, such as putting on your “lucky shirt” before a big date, giving yourself a pep talk in front of a mirror before a job interview, or visualizing yourself scoring before you shoot a basketball.
While these rituals can often seem irrational and superstitious, research suggests that they may actually serve a positive function.
In a study published in Psychological Science, they found that practicing superstitious behavior (such as someone telling you “break a leg,” or crossing your fingers, or thinking you have a lucky object) can actually improve performance in a wide range of tasks, including golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram tasks.
The reason this works isn’t because of some supernatural force, but because these small and meaningful behaviors can give us a boost in confidence, while also reducing anxiety associated with a task, thus leading us to actually perform better than we otherwise would.
Small rituals can open up something inside us that we normally don’t have access to.
Have you ever seen a movie or TV show where someone gets hold of a lucky object? Usually their life begins to make a positive change and they attribute all of their success to the lucky object. At the end, they face this huge obstacle only realizing after that they didn’t have the lucky object anymore, and it was actually a power that was inside of them all along.
All rituals work the same way – it’s not the actual words, behaviors, or object that give us power, it’s our perception of the ritual that makes it work.
But while the power of these rituals comes from inside us, the physical practice of these rituals (however superstitious or silly they may be) are often necessary to actually spark that inner change in us.
Often the most successful people in their domain – whether it be athletes, businessmen, musicians, actors, or whomever – make use of their own small but meaningful rituals to help them face their daily obstacles.
I’ve been watching a lot of baseball lately and players engage in small rituals all of the time. A player walks to the plate, adjusts each glove two times each, touches both sides of the plate with their bat, kicks the dirt a few times with their back foot, and then steps up waiting for their pitch.
This small ritual helps players find their flow or “groove” while in a game. The specifics behind each ritual aren’t very important, but rather the fact that these players walk themselves through the same preparation each time – and that builds consistency and confidence.
Create your own small ritual
You can create your own small rituals to improve a certain situation in your life. Here are simple guidelines to get you started:
- Identify a specific situation in your life you want to improve yourself in, maybe it’s getting better grades in a class, or being more confident during a date, or performing better at a particular sport or game.
- Find or create something that is meaningful to you that you can do before the situation. For example:
- Carry a lucky object with you that holds personal significance to you.
- Recite inspiring self-affirmations for 5-10 minutes.
- Create a sequence of behaviors, such as clapping your hands five times then doing five jumping jacks.
- If you can, try integrating symbols in your life that are already meaningful to you, maybe from a religion, spirituality, or a piece of art you like. For example, a Christian baseball player may make the sign of the cross over the plate with their bat.
- Whatever ritual you do, the most important thing is that is is meaningful to you. Rituals are a personal thing, you can’t just borrow someone else’s ritual and automatically expect it to work. Your own mind has to make it meaningful.
- Keep practicing the ritual. The more often you practice it, the more meaningful it’ll become to you as time passes. Make it become a part of your everyday routine and it’ll become a part of you.
In many ways, creating small rituals like this can lead to a kind of placebo effect, where the mere suggestion that these rituals will work can help make them actually work (a kind of self-fulfilling belief).
It’s easy to be skeptical about the power of rituals – because they are a form of superstition – but I recommend just trying them out for yourself and seeing how they work for you. Despite their irrationality, they can serve a very positive and practical function in our lives.
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement