First, I want to present you with some information.
In several, large-scale studies over the past decade or so, religious observance has been linked, again and again, with better health outcomes and quality of life.
The Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences came out with a study examining almost 4,000 North Carolina residents aged 64 to 101. They found that religious observance – in this case, attending religious services at least once a week – correlated with being 46% less likely to die during the course of the study.
Smaller studies have demonstrated that people who attend religious services experience lower levels of depression and anxiety; display signs of better health, such as lower blood pressure and fewer strokes; and say they generally feel healthier.
You may interpret these results in multiple ways. One is that requesting the intercession of a higher power actually results in that higher power helping you out. If that’s your take, that’s great.
However, I’m going to suggest that something else is going on (after all, it doesn’t matter which religion you observe, and other studies have observed similar effects in those who simply attend a club or social group).
What we are seeing here is the power of ritual.
Ritual is as old as human kind. Indeed, it is most likely linked to the very beginnings of human consciousness. Early rituals sought to connect human actions to the outer universe, to influence events though indirect means. In that sense, it’s the very earliest starting point for all religions, and the cradle of science and reason.
Ritual predates everything but the most basic of human bonds. It is woven into the fabric of our societies – birthdays, weddings, lighting the Christmas tree, praying before bed – and informs how we perceive the passage of the seasons and our lives.
And yet, ritual is largely lost from our lives – at least, in the sense that rituals helped our ancestors make sense of theirs.
The Industrial Revolution was, more than a revolution of steam and electricity, a revolution in time. Before railroads stretched across continents, time was local; it would be 12:45 in one town, 12:34 in another; time was indistinct. You would show up to work “in the morning;” you would return “in the evening.” Shorter seasons brought literally shorter days, not simply days without sunlight.
Clocks brought the possibility of a universal time. It was now one time, everywhere; you could be expected to be at work at 9 sharp, and to know exactly whether you had done this or not. Our lives became hyper-ritualized: perform this task at this time. Be at this place at this time. Our jobs become mechanized, indecipherable beasts that responded only to highly ritualized series of actions: pull the lever, hit the button, turn the crank, in that order and in only that order.
This all culminates in the computer, the most highly ritualized object in all of existence. Possible of producing almost anything, if you incant the right phrases and wave your hands in just the right way.
And yet, for all of the ritual in our lives – turn the key in the ignition, press the pedal only so much, input the data in just this way, be home for dinner at just this time and no earlier – our lives feel more chaotic, less structured. Why?
This is because the rituals of our lives are no longer self-directed. These are not rituals that tell us our place in a larger world, that order a larger universe. These are rituals in service to others – in service to machines and business processes that are impossible for us to understand, bigger than ourselves.
As a result of the ever-increasing number of impersonal rituals we perform, we have less and less time for personal rituals, the kind that center us and provide us with energy, motivation, and meaning. We weaken our sense of resolve and lose discipline, unable to resist the call of the cell phone or the instant message or the email alert. The phone calls us, and we pick it up.
Return, for a moment, to religious observance. The world’s religions are the last repository of inward rituals – rituals that tell us who we are, and where we fit. Ironically, though they are ostensibly in service to a higher being, religious rituals are personal affairs, time alone with one’s self and one’s God.
Taking time out of every day to kneel and pray, to focus on your self and your emotional state – developing the discipline to do this every day, whether you want to or not – has an extremely powerful effect on your entire psyche, indeed, on your entire body.
I am not a religious man, and I do not recommend prayer. I do recommend that we learn from this example, however.
Building positive rituals into your day will greatly enhance your focus, motivation, and quality of life. The effect cannot be overstated.
Over the next few weeks I will be writing about how to develop positive rituals, incorporate them into your day, and make them stick until they become irresistible forces for change. This is not hand-wavey, “The Secret”-style bullshit. This is a matter of understanding the fundamental nature of the human mind, and why we do what we do (which isn’t what you think).
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