The Importance of Rituals During the COVID Era
Reflecting on meaning and connection during the pandemic.
Posted December 17, 2020
There are many things that have been particularly difficult over the span of the last eight months. Some are specific and obvious, while others are more insidious. One of the casualties for some has been the loss of deep connection both with people we’re close to, and also with our more distant friends and colleagues. This has been true both in families and in the workplace.
We all know that meaningful bonds, love, and support are some of the greatest benefits of being part of a family, at its best. Similarly, workplace teams and student cohorts can develop powerful and meaningful connections leading to increased purpose, happiness, and resilience both in each individual and in the group as a whole.
These bonds are in part created, bolstered, and shared through traditions and rituals. Family rituals can be small, like laying the supper table together nightly or ordering Chinese food on birthdays; or they can have a deeper layer of meaning, like sharing a gratitude at Thanksgiving or resolutions on New Year's Eve.
Similarly, workplace rituals can range from small quotidian habits like having coffee and donuts at daily or weekly meetings and high fives when work has been completed, to more involved events like speeches at gatherings for work anniversaries and company-wide volunteering days.
Students are often inculcated with rituals and traditions from school-wide events to mark the beginning and end of semesters, to sports and club activities that communicate the values of the college and bolster school pride.
Many of our existing rituals have been eliminated by COVID restrictions. Have we seen a deleterious effect of their loss? Overall, families have reported increased fractiousness and reactivity. Many schools have little to report as they are not in person and are struggling to translate online teaching to be anything but an individual activity. And, certainly, all the anecdotal evidence coming from workplaces are noting a diminished productivity and sense of belonging.
Particularly hard hit are the young, whether students or young professionals, in part because they have had less opportunity to internalize the benefits of these rituals, their meaning, and positive effects. In addition, the added stress of chronic uncertainty exacerbates difficulties for many as it increases anxiety and moodiness, undermining self-confidence and, ultimately, goals.
So how can we replace what we’ve lost and what may still be elusive for several more months and maybe longer? First, let’s be clear about what we need to be putting in place. It is key to understand the difference between a habit and a ritual—the crucial difference being that a ritual is intentional and involves creating meaning. It is the continuity and repetition of rituals that creates comfort, support, and reliability. They underscore values and signal what’s important, both consciously and unconsciously. Some will emphasize unity and mutual support; others may focus on the importance of education, the vitality of curiosity, or a belief in the enveloping benefits of excellence. Beyond a momentary improvement in mood, we can trace the neurologically beneficial effects with lowered anxiety and stress hormones, calmer emotions, and a commensurate increase in memory, performance, and well-being. (Wood Brooks et al., 2016)
Second, it’s worth noting that building and participating in rituals comes more easily to some. Those who didn’t experience rituals growing up because of absent parents, or chaos wrought by illness or neglect, often don't instinctively know how to build them in their own families or workplaces. Even those wanting to create new rituals oftentimes don't have the confidence to start them.
Similarly, companies that haven’t spent time thinking about what values they embrace early on find it harder to introduce them later, whereas companies that exude a particular ethos from their outset will find that employees are self-selecting and maintain and build on this framework.
Third, it’s important to take stock. What rituals have remained? Which are lost? Co-opt everyone involved into noting which ones they love, hate, or miss the most. Then brainstorm new alternatives. If a family or team can’t agree, take a selection and try them out. Work out a way to make sure that everyone has a ritual they feel positively about. Individual rituals may need to be adapted to suit growing families—teens sometimes don’t want the same traditions they had when young (though you’d be surprised how often they do), or changing workforces—expanding, shrinking, or changes in culture.
As a starting point, discuss your ideas of what you want your family or business to stand for. Include everyone. Try finishing the sentence that starts with “we are a family/business that…” Values cooperation? Believes in independence? Cares about others? Has fun? Choose those values that you feel most attuned to, starting with more than you need and shedding those that don't “stick” or are less liked.
There can be pitfalls—substantial resistance makes rituals counterproductive and then it’s worth rethinking them. The trick is to find the balance between staying the course—repetition is important—and being responsive to individual needs and likes.
Something to remember is that, though it’s possible to have a truly group-driven initiative, more likely someone needs to take the lead. A strong character is often necessary to make more complicated rituals happen but encouraging others to step up over time will give the ritual more staying power. If you are the prime mover, try to co-opt the next generation in a family or non-management in a company, to co-lead it with you and eventually take over.
Finally, and equally importantly, have fun with rituals. Even the more serious ones can be planned and undertaken exuberantly, bringing out the best in everyone concerned. Once we’ve moved on from this Covid era, review and maintain the rituals you love, return to the ones you missed, and move on from the ones you’d rather do without. But, above all, be intentional about it—you’ll be glad you did, deepening those connections and reaping all the benefits that come with them.
Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Alison Wood Brooks, Juliana Schroeder, Jane L. Risen, Francesca Gino, Adam D. Galinsky, Michael I. Norton, Maurice E. Schweitzer. https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/Rituals%20OBHDP_5cbc584…