07/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Rituals Make You Happy

Until I started my Happiness Project, I didn't think much about rituals and whether they made me happy.

But when I reflected on them, I realized that I find rituals both calming and energizing (this is no paradox, and in fact, is a very desirable, happy state).

For example, in my high school, exams were taken VERY seriously, and the process was always the same. When everyone was settled at a desk, the teacher would pass out the papers, and we'd lay them face down. She'd return to the front of the classroom, look at the clock, and say quietly, "It is now 9:10. You have two hours. Be sure to read all instructions carefully"--then a dramatic pause--"you may turn over your test paper and begin."

This familiar, grave, quiet formula made the start of an exam into a little ritual that helped put me in the right frame of mind to face a stressful exam.

I was astonished when I went to college to find a completely chaotic exam-taking process. People would hurry to the professor's desk, grab a paper, and shove each other out of the way to sit down. When the end of the exam was announced, some people would keep writing for ten or fifteen more minutes before a TA snatched away their blue books.

This lack of ritual left me rattled and distracted - just the opposite of how I'd approached exams in high school.

Along the same lines, the Little Girl just started camp, and I'd braced myself for a dismissal when they'd all rush out of the door helter-skelter as we adults pushed amongst ourselves to try to scoop up the right kid. Intead, after singing a good-bye song, the children stand in a circle in the classroom, while the grown-ups wait in a line outside the door. The counselors call the children's names, one by one, and the child comes to the door to get a big hug and to leave. The orderliness and deliberateness of this process keeps everyone calm and cheerful.

Whenever I sit down to work, in my office or at a coffee shop or at New York Society Library, I run through a series of updates, checks, synchronizations, and switching on of various devices and programs. It's both soothing and energizing to perform my machine ritual.

So think about rituals in your life. Take a moment to savor the enjoyable ones. Think about opportunities to heighten the experience of an ordinary occasion by treating it with special deliberation--particularly if it's a stressful or emotional experience. Discussing a child's report card. Giving a performance review. Packing for a trip. Getting ready for a date.

Studies show that family traditions and family rituals encourage children's social development and boost feelings of family cohesiveness. But they're not just important for children.


If you'd like to read more about happiness, check out Gretchen's daily blog, The Happiness Project, or sign up for her monthly newsletter.