Tuesday, August 16

Having small daily rituals improves our health

When anthropologist Bronsilaw Malinowski visited Papua New Guinea’s Trobriand Islands in the early 1900s, he noticed the elaborate preparations that fishermen made before setting sail.

They carefully painted their canoes black, red, and white, casting spells as they did so. They pounded their boats with wooden sticks, stained the prows reddish ocher, and the crew adorned their arms with shells.

Malinowski recorded the long list of ceremonies and rituals that the islanders carried out before venturing into the open sea. But when those fishermen sailed in a nearby calm lagoon, they did not practice these rituals.

Malinowski concluded that the “magical” rituals performed by the islanders were a response that helped them deal with the unpredictable power of the Pacific Ocean.

Subsequent anthropologists have noted that fishermen in other parts of the world, such as those deep-sea fishing in the gulf off the coast of Texas, United States, and herring fishermen in East Anglia, United Kingdom, also tended to superstition and rituals that will help them deal with the uncertainty and dangers of their profession.

But the evidence points to the existence of rituals long before the 20th century. One of the earliest examples of human ritual practice is believed to be the carving of a python in a cave in Botswana, southern Africa, which dates back 70,000 years.

It is estimated that thousands of stone spearheads were burned in a ritual on the raven, including some that had been elaborately carved from a red stone brought from a site hundreds of miles away. The archaeologists who made the discovery believe that the destruction of the spear tips was part of ritualistic sacrifices in honor of the python.

But, Why have rituals been used for so long?

Inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, in a ritual dance
The inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, in Papua New Guinea, perform various rituals in their day to day. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Protection against uncertainty and anxiety

As defined by psychologists, a ritual is “a predefined sequence of symbolic actions that are usually characterized by formality and repetition without a direct instrumental purpose ”.

Research has identified three elements of a ritual. First, it consists of behaviors that occur in a fixed sequence – one after the other – and that are typified by formality and repetition. Second, the behaviors have symbolic meaning, and finally, these ritualized behaviors generally have no obvious practical purpose.

Rituals occur surprisingly very frequently in our day-to-day lives. It is believed that we form rituals based on our values. For example, people with christian values they baptize their babies as a symbol of a spiritual rebirth.

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But rituals go beyond helping us maintain our values. They can also help us have less anxiety.

Ritualistic practices can help us to have a degree of predictability in the face of an uncertain future. They convince our brains of constancy and predictability as the “ritual offers protection against uncertainty and anxiety,” according to the scientists.

Studies show that the anxiety-reducing effect of rituals can be applied to almost any high-pressure activity.

A man shaving
Daily rituals may be simple, but they give us a sense of control against uncertainty. (Photo: GETTY IAMGES)

Reduced heart rate

In a curious experiment, the researchers instructed participants to perform an anxiety-creating task – sing the song. Don´t Stop Believing (from the rock group Journey) in front of strangers. The participants were divided into two groups, with one being asked to perform a ritual beforehand (which included put salt on some pictures they had made). The second group was given instructions on their presentation and was allowed to wait in silence.

The participants’ heart rate, feelings of anxiety, and song performance were measured to determine anxiety levels.

“The participants who completed the ritual sang better, had significantly lower heart rates and they said they felt less anxious than the participants who did not comply with the ritual, ”said Francesca Gino, director of the negotiation, organization and markets unit at the Harvard School of Business Administration and co-author of the study.

In another experiment involving 75 Hindu women on the island of Mauritius, anxiety among the participants was generated by asking them to prepare a speech that would be evaluated by experts. To all participants a heart monitor was placed on them and they were asked to fill out surveys at the beginning and end of the experiment. Some participants were sent to a local temple to perform rituals before completing the second survey, while the rest were asked to remain seated and relax.

Similar levels of anxiety were reported between both groups in the first survey. However, after the second survey, the anxiety levels reported by the participants who did the rituals were lower. Heart rates also confirmed that the participants who performed the ritualistic acts had lower psychological anxiety.

Control and order

Sports psychologists they also propose that rituals Prior to a performance can bring benefits to athletes, such as better execution and possible reduction in anxiety levels.

Rafael Nadal, winner of 20 Grand Slam individual tennis tournaments, has almost the same number of rituals, which he puts into practice before each match. In his 2012 autobiography, “Rafa: my story”, Nadal explains that his rituals are “a way of placing myself in a game, of ordering my environment in line with the order that I seek in my mind ”.

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Rafael Nadal during a rest period in a tennis match
Multiple tennis champion Rafael Nadal has a variety of rituals that he follows in his matches. (Photo: Getty Images)

By the way, the type of ritual does not seem to be relevant in reducing anxiety. Gino adds that “even simple rituals can be extremely effective.”

Paradoxically, research suggests that rituals that involve pain, injury, or trauma could provide some kind of psychological advantage to those who perform them. For example, fire walkers reported higher levels of happiness after taking part in this extreme ritualistic experience.

There are also signs that rituals can help us deal with some of the most difficult times in our lives, like when we are in mourning.

End-of-life rituals can create stronger connections between the dead and their loved ones. In a 2014 study, researchers found that the penalty was less among participants who performed personal rituals, like washing the deceased person’s car every week.

When we suffer a loss, we often feel like we are losing control, so it is perhaps not surprising that rituals are used to create a semblance of order to regain that control.

But the benefits of rituals also go beyond the individual, they are evident between groups of people as well.

Ritualistic behavior can improve social ties when we practice it collectively.

“Having social networks is associated with well-being, and rituals – often group gatherings – are believed to be particularly good at facilitating such networks,” says Valerie van Mulukom, a psychologist at Conventry University, UK. and co-author of a study on the effect of secular rituals on social ties.

A group of people participate in a group ritualistic session
Group rituals serve to strengthen social ties. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Group rituals indicate that members have similar mindsets and share certain values, which promotes an atmosphere of trust. For example, ritualistic chants have been shown to make soccer fans feel connected.

And for singer-songwriter Beyoncé, saying a prayer in a circle with her entire team is a “spiritual practice” that leads to a perfect presentation.

“After participating in group rituals, many individuals report having a greater connection with others, even though in some cases they are just observing the ritual,” says Johannes Karl, a doctoral student at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, who has studied how rituals affect social ties and health.

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Van Mulukom’s research on religious rituals in Brazil and the United Kingdom concluded that the participating in rituals increased the pain threshold and the ability to feel positive emotions, which strengthened the social ties of the group.

But social ties are not only limited to religious rituals. “We found this effect to occur in both religious rituals and secular rituals,” adds van Mulukom.

The harmful side of rituals

Despite its many benefits, there are some negatives to rituals.

For groups, the evidence implies that rituals can stimulate internal biases. For example, a study that gave groups of children bags of string and beads found that those who participated in collective rituals spent more time showing their materials to group members who participated in rituals than to children who did not belong to the group.

A woman undergoes an initiation ceremony at the University of Granada, Spain
The initiation ceremonies that continue in many universities have elements of degradation and humiliation of the individual. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

More worryingly, group ritualistic practices, such as the so-called hazing, the cruel ceremonies of initiation prevalent among some student groups in the US or in the military, they are extremely damaging.

The practice usually involves the degradation and humiliation of the initiate and, on rare occasions, has resulted in death. Studies on the prevention of hazing They found that a commitment to culture change is required to combat this harmful type of group ritual.

In general, research suggests whether they are informal, secular, individual, or group, rituals have a positive effect on our well-being.

Since rituals have stress-relieving qualities, Gino advises us to “adopt pre-activity rituals during stressful situations in our lives, perhaps before giving a presentation at work, taking an exam, or holding a presentation. Difficult conversation”. Like the fishermen of the Trobriand Islands, they might arm yourself with courage to face the choppy sea on your way.

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