Creating Rituals

In this excerpt from his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, Positive Psychology professor and Kripalu presenter Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, explores the notion of what it means to be truly happy, and what tools we can use to practice the art of happiness.

We all know that change is hard. Much research suggests that learning new tricks, adopting new behaviors, or breaking old habits may be harder than we even realize and that most attempts at change, whether by individuals or organizations, fail. It turns out that self-discipline is usually insufficient when it comes to fulfilling our commitments, even those we know are good for us—which is why most New Year’s resolutions fail.

In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz provide a different way of thinking about change: they suggest that instead of focusing on cultivating self-discipline as a means toward change, we need to introduce rituals. According to Loehr and Schwartz, “Building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at very specific times—motivated by deeply held values.”

Initiating a ritual is often difficult, but maintaining it is relatively easy. Top athletes have rituals: They know that at specific hours during each day they are on the field, after which they are in the gym, and then they stretch. For most of us, brushing our teeth at least twice a day is a ritual and therefore does not require special powers of discipline. We need to take the same approach toward any change we want to introduce.

What rituals would make you happier? What would you like to introduce to your life? It could be working out three times a week, meditating for 15 minutes every morning, watching two movies a month, going on a date with your spouse on Tuesdays, pleasure reading for an hour every other day, and so on. Introduce no more than one or two rituals at a time, and make sure they become habits before you introduce new ones. As Tony Schwartz says, “Incremental change is better than ambitious failure … Success feeds on itself.”

Once you identify the rituals you want to adopt, enter them in your planner and begin to do them. New rituals may be difficult to initiate; but over time, usually within as little as 30 days, performing these rituals will become as natural as brushing your teeth. Habits in general are difficult to get rid of—and that’s a good thing when good habits are concerned. In Aristotle’s words, “We are what repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Here are some ideas for introducing rituals into your life.

Start a gratitude journal. In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal—writing down at least five things for which they were grateful—enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being. Each night before going to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy. These can be little or big: from a meal that you enjoyed to a meaningful conversation you had with a friend, from a project at work to God. Imagine what each item means to you as you write it down, and experience the feeling associated with it. Doing this exercise regularly can help you to appreciate the positive in your life rather than taking it for granted.

Generate a list of happiness boosters that you can pursue throughout your week. These can include “general” boosters that you can do as a matter of routine (spending time with one’s family and friends, pleasure reading, and so on) as well as “exploratory” boosters that can help you find out whether to introduce a more significant change to your life (volunteering at a school once a week, for instance). Enter the boosters into your daily planner and, if possible, create rituals around them.

Make meditation a ritual. Research by the likes of Herbert Benson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Richard Davidson reveals the profound effects of regular meditation. Set aside between 10 minutes and an hour each day for meditation. After meditating regularly, you may be able to enjoy some of the benefits of meditation in a minute or two. Whenever you feel stressed or upset or when you simply want to enjoy a moment of calm or joy, you can take a few deep breaths and experience a surge of positive emotions.