in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: April 18, 2024

Podcast #981: The Power of Everyday Rituals to Shape and Enhance Our Lives

When we think of rituals, we tend to think of big, inherited, more occasional religious or cultural ceremonies like church services, holidays, weddings, and funerals. But as my guest observes, we also engage in small, self-made, everyday rituals that help us turn life’s more mundane moments into more meaningful ones.

In the The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions, psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton explores the way our DIY rituals shape, and enhance, our lives. We take up that survey on today’s show. Michael explains the difference between a habit and a ritual and how individuals and families create unique “ritual signatures” even within more standard rituals like holidays. We discuss the different areas of life in which rituals show up and what they do for us, including how they help us cope with uncertainty, savor life, and connect to the past. We get into the function DIY rituals perform in romantic relationships, from deepening intimacy to facilitating a break-up, the role that “kinkeepers” play in keeping a family together, the tricky business of combining family traditions when people get married, how to know when a family tradition should be retired, and much more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When we think of rituals, we tend to think of big, inherited, more occasional religious or cultural ceremonies like church services, holidays, weddings, and funerals. But as my guest observes, we also engage in small, self-made, everyday rituals that help us turn life’s more mundane moments into more meaningful ones. In The Ritual Effect, From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions, psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton explores the way our DIY rituals shape and enhance our lives. We take up that survey on today’s show. Michael explains the difference between a habit and a ritual, and how individuals and families create unique ritual signatures, even within more standard rituals like holidays. We discuss the different areas of life in which rituals show up and what they do for including how they help us cope with uncertainty, save our life, and connect to the past. We get into the function DIY rituals perform in romantic relationships, from deepening intimacy to facilitating a breakup, the role that kin keepers play in keeping a family together, the tricky business of combining family traditions when people get married, how to know when a family tradition should be retired, and much more. After the show is over, check out our show notes at All right, Michael Norton, welcome to the show.

Michael Norton: Thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you are a psychologist who has researched and written about the power of rituals in our lives, but you started off your career as a ritual skeptic. What do you think about rituals before you started researching them?

Michael Norton: I think when I talk to scientists, including myself, I guess, scientists often think of rituals as something like people in robes with candles chanting something or other, but very far removed from their everyday lives. Or maybe new-agey millennials in Santa Fe with crystals or, so that’s the other sagebrush.

Brett McKay: That kind of connotation.

Michael Norton: Exactly. And I think I was a little, I mean, I was studying rituals ’cause I thought they were so fascinating just as a psychologist, but I was a little removed from them as a kind of, yeah, I bet they do things, but not so much for me. And then I had my, of course, epiphany moment, which many people have had, which is I had a daughter and brought her home from the hospital. And if that’s ever happened to you, you realize you’re responsible for this person for the next 80 years or however many years. It’s a little stressful. And they don’t seem to wanna sleep. And so what do you do? And what we started to do naturally was we did this book and then we did this song and then we had these two stuffies and then we needed this special blanket. And over time, it literally hit me over time. Oh my God, I’ve completely developed a very elaborate, specific, repeated ritual that we do every single night in exactly the same way in order to help her to sleep. And then I said, I’ve been a little bit of a hypocrite because I, like many, many people have turned to ritual to try to help me with a problem.

Brett McKay: Right, and With that bedtime ritual with kids, if you’ve had them, you know if you switch anything, if you switch the order, they’re like, no, that’s not how we do it. It’s not gonna work that way.

Michael Norton: Exactly. This isn’t the right copy of Goodnight Moon. It’s the soft cover.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I still got that book memorized and it’s been 10 years since I read it. Alright. So as a psychologist, how do you define a ritual?

Michael Norton: I think one of the distinctions that comes to mind for lots of people is because they are quite similar is the distinction between a habit and a ritual. Ritual has this feeling of something more than just a habit. Habits are fantastic. I mean, I wish I had better habits. We should all have better habits and exercise and eat healthy and all the other things we’d like to do. But I feel like habits are a bit dry. They’re sort of things that we do in order to get them done. Like I’m eating the food in order to be healthy. There’s nothing wrong with them. But if you had a 40 year stretch of perfect habits, I’m not sure that we’d look back and say, what an interesting, fulfilling life I had. We’d be really, really healthy, like great cholesterol. But I’m not sure we’d say, like, that was really a fantastic and engaging life. And I think sometimes that’s what rituals help us do, is they take otherwise boring, mundane things, including something like going to bed or helping someone go to bed.

All you technically need to do is put the baby in a crib. That would be just fine. But we use rituals, we create more meaning, we create memories, we create emotion. And I think we tend to enrich our lives a little bit. You still remember the words from this book that you use 10 years later. That’s not so much a habit, that’s something deeper and more meaningful than just a habit.

Brett McKay: All right. So a habit or routine, I think you can swap those synonymously. I think you said in the book, it focuses on the what. It’s just like, I got to get this thing done. It doesn’t particularly matter the order I do it or how I do it. As long as it gets done, we’re good. A routine or a habit can become a ritual if the focus shifts to the how. Would that be the distinction?

Michael Norton: That’s right. And even with these seemingly trivial behaviors, like I’ve asked lots of people, when you’re getting ready for bed or getting ready in the morning, do you brush your teeth first and then shower? Or do you shower and then brush your teeth? What’s your answer, by the way, out of curiosity?

Brett McKay: I brush my teeth after I shower.

Michael Norton: After you shower. So then if I ask people, it’s about 50-50 on those two orders. And then if I say, do you mind switching the order of them tonight? Or tomorrow morning, do you mind doing the other one first? And then the usual first one second. How does that make you feel?

Brett McKay: I don’t care.

Michael Norton: Doesn’t care. So this is so interesting. So about half of people are you. They say, I couldn’t care less. I mean, I’m just brushing my teeth and showering. What difference does it make? And about half of people say, I don’t want to. I’d rather not. And I say, why? And they say, I’d feel weird. I’d feel off. I wouldn’t feel ready for the day. These are people who it’s not just the what. The what is the brushing and showering. If it’s just what, it’s a habit. And the order doesn’t matter to you at all. As soon as the order starts to matter, if there’s feeling in it, emotion in it, if you do it right, it feels good. If you do it wrong, you feel off. That’s getting closer to the feeling of a ritual. It’s more than just the what. It’s how you do it that’s creating more meaning for you.

Brett McKay: Okay, so if a routine or habit elicits emotion in you, and you can usually tell that if you change it, then you might think this is probably more of a ritual, not just a habit.

Michael Norton: Especially if you don’t have a good reason. So if you said, well, I have to brush my teeth first because my kid has to brush their teeth at a certain time. Well, then it’s, you’re not being, you know, rigid because it just matters to you. You have a reason for it. But most people say, I don’t actually know why I brush my teeth first and then shower second. I didn’t do an experiment where I did it one way for a year and the other way for a year. I just feel like this is the way I’m gonna do it. That’s when it’s getting a bit more toward a ritual. You can’t quite explain why it’s meaningful to do it the way you do it, but it just feels meaningful.

Brett McKay: Okay, so this definition of a ritual that you have. So it’s a routine that we do where it elicits emotion. There’s no particular logical reason why we do it, but we feel like we need to do it this certain way. This broadens what can be incorporated or what we can think of as a ritual. But when anthropologists or sociologists study rituals, what kind of rituals are they studying?

Michael Norton: This is the typical, and in fact, when I started studying rituals as well, this is the what first comes to mind are cultural rituals, religious rituals, often with a long history and tradition. So you can think of every religious faith has, of course, you know, rituals of when babies are born, when people become adults, when people get married, when people pass away. Religions have these sort of standard rituals that have been passed down through time. And, you know, countries have rituals as well. The United States has Thanksgiving, for example, which isn’t present in other countries, a little bit in Canada, but not in other countries. But it’s important to Americans to have Thanksgiving.

These are the kinds we often think of are these inherited, I guess is one way to think about them. And they can be incredibly important and they play an incredibly valuable role in our lives. When I say that’s not the kind I study, it’s not because they’re not incredibly important for our well-being and our connection with other people. But I got a little bit more interested in the kind that people are freelancing themselves, kind of under the surface, that are littler ones. They’re even kind of everyday ones, but they’re still creating meaning for us. Not like as much meaning probably as a 2000 year history of a religious faith in connecting you to previous generations. I don’t mean to compare them, but even something as seemingly silly as the order in which you brush your teeth and shower, a little tiny bit that’s giving you something a little ritualistic, it’s giving you something in there that’s beyond just merely going through the motions.

Brett McKay: Or it could be a family ritual that you take part in, that just your family does, it’s unique to your family.

Michael Norton: That’s right. And even one of the, when you think about inherited rituals, so Thanksgiving, for example, we’re aware of what Thanksgiving is. If you have people write about what happens on Thanksgiving, they can tell you. There’s a turkey and things like that. But when you go into families, each family is doing it in their own very specific way. They have their own specific foods that they, maybe there’s turkey, but there’s also some pies that are very specific, different kinds of stuffing that are very specific. What time we eat varies from family to family. If you’ve ever gone with a significant other to their family’s Thanksgiving, the number one emotion you have is they’re doing it all wrong. What’s wrong with these people? I don’t think I can be with this person anymore ’cause their family’s insane. Well, that tells us that it’s not even Thanksgiving, which is a tradition inherited all of those features, even their families and individuals are still coming up with their own idiosyncratic ways that reflect something specific about their identity.

Brett McKay: Something you talk about in the book is this idea of a ritual signature. What is that?

Michael Norton: This is exactly this kind of thing where we do have things that we receive That are given to us. A wedding, for example, you can think about is standard. Most religions and most cultures have some form of two people love each other. They come together, their families get together and there’s a ceremony. But only some people would play AC/DC, you know, as the bride and groom come down the aisle because whatever, they met at an AC/DC concert. That’s their ritual signature. Yes, they are using some elements of established ones, but they’re also building into these things that are very idiosyncratic to them. That have special meaning for them. That other people would be horrified to have ACDC playing, you know, as they came down the aisle. But for this couple, it’s kind of their thing. Literally, it’s their ritual signature. It’s what we do that makes us us and not like those other couples.

Brett McKay: And something you talk about in the beginning of the book is there’s this idea that we’ve become a more secular culture. You quoted Charles Taylor. We’ve talked about Charles Taylor on the podcast. We live in a secular age and because of that, we’ve become more rational and we’re engaging in less ritualistic behavior. But you argue that actually, no, if you look at things, we might be taking part in less of those legacy rituals that are associated with church or religion. But if you look closely enough, people today, there are just thousands, millions of different rituals being performed every day by people who aren’t even religious.

Michael Norton: So the biggest counterpoint to the idea that we’re losing ritual in society would be something like Burning Man, which is not religious. There’s no kind of specific faith associated with it. But if you kind of abstract away, you’ve got people going on a pilgrimage to a desert for a period of time. There’s music. There are substances that change how you’re thinking and feeling about the world. At the end, we have a gigantic figure that we burn in a ritualistic way, and then we all retreat back to our lives. Is that secular? Yes, technically, because we don’t have a faith associated with it. But it’s an incredibly ritualistic activity that we engage in.

Brett McKay: Why do we engage in ritualistic behavior? I think people can look at maybe religious rituals and think, well, you know, there’s a reason it’s about tradition and showing piety to God. But if you don’t believe in a higher power, why do we still have this drive to engage in ritualistic behavior?

Michael Norton: It’s one of the reasons I became most interested in studying rituals, honestly, is that across so many domains of life, one of the things that humans turn to is ritual. Funerals and weddings, we use them for grieving and also for love. We use rituals to get amped up and we use rituals sometimes to calm ourselves down. I mean, we’re using them for incredibly different purposes in these different domains of life. And we use many other strategies and things as well. It’s not like we only use rituals, but the fact that we see them across so many domains of life says to me that there is something really fundamental in humans that ritual is doing something for us.

They do lots of things for us but one underlying thing that I think we see is that we use them to solve problems. And in particular, when we have uncertainty or stress or we’re faced with something that’s hard to cope with, that’s when we often see humans turning to ritual as a way to try to manage some of that uncertainty and stress. And the problem, of course, as you know, with being human is, everything is completely uncertain. We can try to convince ourselves that it’s not, but the fact is, of course, that’s the way that life goes. And so it’s not surprising that we’ve developed practices to try to help us in some way or another cope with that level of uncertainty and feel a little bit more sense of control so that we’re not constantly just all over the place and wondering even, you know, is anything I’m doing meaningful or not.

Brett McKay: And you talk about we see the connection of ritualistic behavior and uncertainty very viscerally in sports. What can sports tell us about the connection between uncertainty and ritualistic behavior?

Michael Norton: A super fun way to waste an afternoon is to type in the name of any athlete or any celebrity and then the word ritual and just click search. And you’ll find not every athlete and not every celebrity has rituals, but it’s kind of shocking how often they do have something very idiosyncratic and often quite elaborate. And the question is, well, why them and not the rest of us? And of course, if you think about so Rafael Nadal is famous for his pre-serve ritual, which is very, very elaborate, takes a very long time. It includes him picking his wedgie, which I find extremely amusing. And my daughter actually finds very amusing that he does that. So why is he engaged in these seemingly unusual behaviors that aren’t really related to serving? And it’s of course, ’cause he’s got to do something that’s as hard a physical action as humans can do. Or when Beyonce is about to go out on stage in front of 50,000, 100,000 people, the stress of that is, we can’t even imagine how stressful that is. So celebrities turn to these kinds of rituals. And I think we can see, you know, that we turn to them because we’re trying to get ready and solve the problem of, oh my God, I have to do this enormous thing coming up. The rest of us don’t have the liberty to do those kinds. So if I, Before I taught a class, if I started to do Raphael’s pre-serve ritual, people would say, come on, this isn’t that hard. You’re not allowed to do that.

So we allow celebrities to do these things in a way that we don’t allow ourselves. But if we ask people, what do you do before, when you’re nervous about something, like a meeting at work that’s important, people say, oh no, I do them. It’s just that what I do is I do them in private. Many people say, I go into the bathroom, I check that nobody’s there, then I talk to myself in the mirror. So we’re not Nadal, we’re not Serena Williams, but we are doing these very similar things to deal with our own level of stress. When stress is there, humans seem to have always wanted to bring ritual as a possible solution.

Brett McKay: I want to talk more about how rituals can help our performance. But going back to the connection between uncertainty and ritualistic behavior, you pointed out this really interesting study. When they look at baseball, when they compare hitters and fielders, hitters engage in more ritualistic behavior than fielders do. And it’s probably because hitting a baseball, there’s more uncertainty there. You don’t know what pitch is coming your way. Hitting a baseball that’s going 95 miles an hour or sometimes 100 miles an hour, it’s extremely hard to do. So there’s a lot of uncertainty. So you see batters engaging in more. They’ve got their, before they get in the batter’s box, they got their thing they do. They touch themselves in different ways. They hit the plate. You don’t see that so much with fielders ’cause there’s less uncertainty. You know, well, if the ball’s coming my way, I’m gonna get it. And then I’m gonna throw it to first or second.

Michael Norton: Yeah. There’s a study I love that they filmed baseball players and then they coded at a micro level how many movements they made before each had bat. And the average number was 83, which is a lot of movements to make before every single pitch that is delivered to you. But you’re right. If you think about even if you just think about this base rate of success, the very best hitters ever fail two thirds of the time. Like it is incredible to be successful one out of every three times as a hitter. In the field, the success rate is like 98 or 99% at most positions. So if you purely just think about the uncertainty, you can see how if you’re in the situation where my gosh, it’s probably gonna go wrong. You’d have more stress. You might turn to more ritual. If you’re in a situation where you’re just fine, you probably don’t need to do it quite as much.

Brett McKay: Okay so rituals can help us feel more calm in periods of uncertainty. It can also help reduce stress when we’re feeling anxious about a performance, a big performance. And that’s basically because it gives us a sense that we have a bit of control even though rationally these actions that we take part in might not have any direct effect. Maybe they do maybe we can be metaphysical here and say yeah maybe they do have something but we’re going to keep things rational here and say well they don’t have a direct effect, but it gives us a sense of control. And you were talking about some of these pre-game rituals these pre-performance rituals that musicians do, actors do before they get on the stage. Can these rituals that they take part in or maybe we take part in to get ready for a speech, can the ritualistic behavior get in the way of performance?

Michael Norton: It’s so interesting because we tend to think of rituals as we’re feeling stressed. And so I’m going to do this ritual and it’s going to calm me down. And many people report that that’s how it feels that they are nervous. Then they do their ritual and then they feel calmer before they go on. But the problem is that rituals can get in the way as well right? So in a couple of ways. One is if I always before I go on stage do the exact same ritual and it’ll make me feel like I’m ready to go, well if that gets disrupted then I’m going to feel less ready to go right? So if I’ve set myself up that I need to do this ritual and then I can’t do the ritual I might actually be worse off than if I never had it in the first place.

Brett McKay: You’ve done any research on OCD and rituals when does a ritual become obsessive compulsive? And for people who have a tendency or are prone to obsessive compulsiveness, can rituals do more harm than good?

Michael Norton: So often we’re engaged in a ritual in the service of something else. So if you, think about even something like checking to see if you remembered to lock the door of your house or apartment before you leave for the day you’re checking that in order to feel good about leaving so that you can go and engage in your day and have a good day at work. And sometimes what can happen is that we lose the link between we were doing the ritual in order to accomplish something else. I was doing the pre-show ritual in order to then go out on stage and perform well. And with obsessive compulsive disorder what can happen is the ritual itself becomes the reward. We lose the link between I’m doing this in the service of something else and it becomes I’m doing this in order to do this. So the pre, even with baseball players you can see scouts sometimes say this person’s batting ritual is so elaborate that it’s not helping them get in the zone. It’s actually interfering with them getting in the zone because after a thousand movements it’s like three pitches have gone by and they struck out without even swinging. At the extreme this can be what happens or if you’re checking that locked your door of your house or apartment before you go to work.

If you lose the link between checking and leaving then, you’re just checking in order to check and then again we can see it. Well when that ritual starts to interfere with your goals and interfere with your life that’s when we can start to say you know what? This has gone far beyond being useful and might actually be harmful.

Brett McKay: Have you done any research on how individuals develop these rituals for performance and say like an athlete or a singer they have these different things that they do. They might have to wear certain socks, they put on their socks in a certain way, they got to chalk their hands a certain way. How do these develop and then how do they get imbued with ritualistic meaning?

Michael Norton: What is so fascinating is that often people can’t quite explain it. So sometimes if they use for example a song they can explain the song. And you can even say this song came out in 2007 when I was in college and that’s why I started using it as part of my performance routine. But most of the movements that people have they actually can’t track. They’re not sure why they tap twice instead of three times. Nobody told them at the time to tap two versus three times. They just develop over time and then they just become the way that we do things. I had an undergraduate student at Harvard who was an athlete who had a pre-performance ritual that was very elaborate. And I asked her the question that you asked me which is well does that ever interfere? And she said well no I actually made it very elaborate so that it’s almost impossible to do perfectly correctly so that if I don’t perform well I can blame it on the fact that I didn’t do the ritual perfectly. And if I do perform well I can say well I probably did the ritual perfectly. Now if you think about the psychology…

First off it’s genius but if you think of the psychology of that we’re very carefully constructing our rituals and calibrating them to be exactly what we need right in that moment even sometimes going too far in order to later be able to point to the ritual as the problem. She also couldn’t really point to say and the reason I started this step and then this step was because of this and this. It often just happens in the environment. And as we were saying earlier even with our kids’ bedtime rituals, often it’s just you had the kid and then the book that was close to you was Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. And so that became the book that you use rather than, well we carefully surveyed every children’s book in the world and discovered that this was the optimal book. It’s often a little kind of environmental stimulus that then gets built into things.

Brett McKay: Yeah it’s interesting about that girl with her ritual. She was using the ritual as ego protection and so if she failed it was like ah I don’t feel so bad because it wasn’t my performance it was just my ritual was off.

Michael Norton: It’s amazing right?

Brett McKay: Yeah it’s interesting. But I can see that get in the way though because how do you improve? You think well, it wasn’t because I did this thing wrong in my performance. It was the ritual. That can backfire.

Michael Norton: Yeah. If you don’t take it as a maybe I should also practice more.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay. So rituals can help us feel more calm during periods of stress and uncertainty, can help increase our performance but also rituals can hinder our performance if taken to an extreme. You also talk about research you’ve come across and done about how ritual can help us savor life more. Tell us about that.

Michael Norton: I think that a life of perfect habits again you’d be very very healthy. And even if you think about just eating and drinking, what we need are calories and hydration. And so if you may have heard of Soylent as kind of a not very tasty but has all the nutrients that we need to survive kind of food. And if you just have Soylent and probably some water you’d be perfectly healthy. And there’s nothing wrong with… I mean I want everybody to eat whatever they feel like eating but if you think about savoring life it’s… You could just eat the same thing every single day. But we can use food for much much more than that. A cake is not just a cake when it’s a birthday cake. It means something more than that or liquid in a glass isn’t just liquid in a glass when we raise it and clink glasses and say Cheers or sláinte or salud. We’re using ritual to imbue boring, in a sense boring things. It’s just calories and liquid but we’re using ritual to imbue it with something more than that like meaning or connection with other people. Or literally going from age seven to age eight with this birthday cake with this number of candles that signifies that I’m something different than I was before.

So they can help us I think move beyond being very utilitarian towards something that really is much more rich and meaningful than just going through the motions. And otherwise it’s hard to find the time. We’re just very busy and running around all the time. And rituals can serve as a little reminder like my three minutes with my coffee in the morning. It’s just a little reminder that I don’t need to be sprinting everywhere at all times. I can take even just one minute and savor the moment just briefly before I go back into the rat race.

Brett McKay: Right, so if you can use food to create more emotion more connection. I think holiday traditions with food are you see this my kids they are really gung-ho about we got to eat these certain foods on these certain days and they get kind of upset when we don’t. So in my family a couple of years ago I started making corned beef and potatoes and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day because I did that when I was growing up started doing it I did it once and then it became a thing and they’re like yeah they look forward to it and it’s like I get the Walmart corned beef it’s okay. But now we didn’t do this one year and they were like they were really bummed like oh something’s off with the world. We didn’t eat corn beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.

Michael Norton: I do the same thing with my daughter and my wife. And what’s funny is neither of them like corned beef at all. In fact that has nothing to do with the fact that we’re going to make it every year. In and of itself, it’s like wait what are we doing by making this My daughter this year she’s eight and she tried a little piece of corned beef and then she said very skillfully, she said I really like this. Can I save it and finish it later? Which was just a chef’s kiss of social subtlety there. But again next year we’re definitely going to do it right. I mean for me I’m Irish Catholic so I remember my grandmother making that. All this history and tradition in these things that I can remember my grandmother without. But when you engage in these rituals I mean literally the smell of things can bring you back to memory in a way that is hard to do otherwise. So we also by enacting these rituals over time we literally do connect ourselves more deeply with the past. And my daughter is never going to meet my grandmother who she’s named after but when we make corned beef together she is connected to her in a very different way than if we don’t enact some of those traditions in our family.

Brett McKay: So those food traditions, those food rituals can help us engage in mental time travel and that has positive benefits.

Michael Norton: For sure. And religion does the same. I mean the feeling of being connected to a history of thousands of years that’s a really really powerful feeling. And I could just sit here and try to feel that way but rituals really give me a very different way of doing that of saying people like me have been doing this and this has been important to them for that long. It’s just a very different rich connection that rituals can help us to get.

Brett McKay: What about rituals and romantic relationships? How can rituals strengthen those?

Michael Norton: So we have weddings. That’s a ritual. It’s a big thing. It definitely counts. It’s very very important. But then that’s one day. You have an anniversary so once a year you’re supposed to celebrate and say oh yeah I still like you. I guess Valentine’s Day makes us also do that at least one time a year. But what about all the other days? Can rituals play a role there? And when you ask couples, we rarely ask do you have a ritual? But we’ll ask is there anything that the two of you do that’s special that you make sure you always do it that other couples don’t really do? It’s your special thing. Two thirds three quarters of couples say you know what? We do have something. And there are things like we always kiss in threes. One person that was like we’ve been doing it for 22 years. They could have done two kisses or four but for them it’s three. And this other couple said before we eat we clink our silverware together. Just these little tiny… Forks are boring, but this couple made their silverware into something really meaningful for themselves. Speaking of savoring kind of savoring the moment before they start to eat. And we do see that couples who say they have a relationship ritual tend to report higher relationship satisfaction than couples who say we don’t have anything like that.

Brett McKay: And they have to be exclusive. It has to be just unique for that person. If you find out that I think there’s that Olivia Rodrigo song Deja Vu? Have you ever heard that song?

Michael Norton: Uh-huh.

Brett McKay: It’s about this guy who’s dated one girl broke up with her and now he’s dating a new girl and he’s doing the exact same things that he did with his previous girlfriend. This girl thinks it’s like a neat unique thing to her but she doesn’t realize actually this guy just does it to every girl that he’s in a relationship with. And so it loses its ritualistic meaning.

Michael Norton: One of the fascinating things. So when you break up with somebody you might not like it but they’re definitely allowed to date other people. They’re allowed to get married, they’re allowed to have kids. Again you might not love it but they’re allowed to do that but they are not allowed to reuse your rituals with their new partner. That is simply the rudest thing you could possibly do and people get so even something like your pet nicknames. If we were Schmoopy Bear or whatever it was, you may not call your next partner. You may marry them and spend the rest of your life with them. You may not call them Schmoopy Bear. And it’s exactly as you said because it’s such a violation of what was special about us that you would ever think to use that with somebody else.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about that people have rituals around the breakup itself. So when a relationship ends how do I leave that relationship behind me? And you see people often engaging in ritual to sort of say let me put to bed the person I was with whoever that was so that I can be a new person with this new person. Some of the best, honestly the most entertaining best examples of self-made rituals are the ones that people do especially when they are broken up with. Now it’s like delete the pictures on Instagram or whatever. But in the old world it’s shockingly common that people would take all the pictures of themselves with their ex and burn them. Literally put them in a pile and burn them to say I’m eliminating you from everything of my life. I will never speak with you again. Why do we do that? On the one hand you can say what an odd thing to do. On the other hand it sounds like that’s probably a good idea. I wish I had tried that at least one time because we’re trying to use it to say demarcation. I’m not that person anymore. Now I’m somebody new. Continuing on this idea of relationships and rituals let’s talk about family rituals. We’ve mentioned a few throughout this conversation people have their own unique Thanksgiving rituals they might do, holiday rituals. But you have this idea that there are people and families that are really good about making sure family traditions keep going on and they’re called kin keepers. Tell us about kin keepers.

Michael Norton: You can think of the person in your family. Every extended family typically most nuclear families have someone and then an extended family has someone as well who is the person who is responsible for the family remaining a family. They are the ones who call everyone or email everyone and say what are we going to do for Thanksgiving this year? What are we going to do for this holiday this year? What are we going to do for dad’s birthday? And if you look across time, across decades it’s the same person every single year who’s sending those emails. Their sibling and family members sometimes find them annoying. Why does this person keep bothering us with the birthday thing? And yet without the role that person plays, families start to disintegrate. I mean is a family a collection of random individuals or is a family a family? And just like any relationship including romantic relationships, they require work. Employee relationships require work. Every relationship you have to put something into it to keep it healthy and sustained. And these kin keepers who do this enormous amount of emotional work for families are really the glue in terms of keeping a family a family.

We were talking earlier about people who say I never would’ve seen my aunts and uncles unless we’d had these big family celebrations. Well they should thank whoever the kin keeper was in that generation because they’re the ones that made it happen. They’re the ones that gave you an extended family through doing a huge amount of work on the backend to make sure everybody came together.

Brett McKay: Yeah I know in my family on my mother’s side we got together quite often. Growing up with my cousins it was usually at Thanksgiving it was because my grandfather had this ranch in New Mexico and we would go there for Thanksgiving, but then once my grandpa got too old and he had to sell the ranch the family get togethers got fewer and far between. And really the last time my extended family got together was at his funeral. That was it. He was the kin keeper for sure.

Michael Norton: Yep and you need somebody to replace that person somehow or it’s very very difficult to keep the traditions going. Also by the way genius is when parents are like I never see my kids anymore. They’re 18 they’re out of the house. Vacation home. If you have the cash the best way to make your kids and then your grandkids visit you is to live somewhere awesome so that they feel like visiting you anyway. I don’t have necessarily the cash to buy 10 houses all over the place but it does seem to be pretty effective.

Brett McKay: That does seem like a good idea. I think what helped my grandfather being the kin keeper was that his place in New Mexico it was cool. It was a desirable spot. People wanted to go there. I mean at least the grandkids wanted to go there. It’s harder to entice people to come to a gathering in say the regular suburbs than someplace cool like that. Have you done any research on how people combine family traditions when they get married?

Michael Norton: It is a source of enormous conflict for many many couples. One case of course is when people of different faiths marry and then you need to combine not just family rituals but also religious rituals. What will we keep? What will we discard? But even in the absence of religious differences there’s just cultural differences and there’s just family differences. So on Thanksgiving if my family always ate at 4:00 and yours ate at 2:00, do we eat at 3:00? Is that the compromise? Or do we do 4:00? But we make sure that we do another thing that your family did. And what you see couples doing as they develop is they very very often take some from one family some from another family and then they develop their own over time. That’s the most common pattern which means you’re both honoring the past and keeping things that were important and keeping that connection. And you’re also constantly just like in all these domains of life freelancing and creating your own that have special meaning for you giving them to your kids and then they’re going to do the same thing in the next generation.

Brett McKay: How do you know when it’s time to discard a family tradition?

Michael Norton: For me, it’s if people… As you said if people stop showing up you probably should try something different. I think if there’s too much conflict around it or people are just too resistant to doing it, you can’t force people to do anything. So you have to create things that are going to be meaningful enough that people are going to want to keep coming back for it.

Brett McKay: Yeah we had a family tradition growing up. My hometown puts on this really big 4th of July parade. We went to it every single 4th of July when I was a kid. And then even after I got married my siblings got married we’d still go to it. And the thing is it’s the exact same thing for 30 plus years you see the exact same thing. It’s usually just advertisements for the local businesses on these floats and it’s a big hassle. It’s hot. I live in Oklahoma so it’s like 95 degrees. It’s humid. My brother-in-Law would have to get out there at six o’clock in the morning to get a spot and you had to sit at this thing for two and a half hours, three hours and it was just a given. You did this thing. It’s 4th of July. We got to go to the Liberty Fest 4th of July parade in Edmond Oklahoma. And I remember one year my wife and I were just like yeah we don’t want to do this anymore. How about we just don’t do this? And we stopped going and then everyone else was like yeah actually you know what? We don’t like going either. And so the tradition ended. I mean we still get together on 4th of July but we do other things. But it is just funny because we kept doing this tradition of going to the parade year after year because that’s what the tradition was but no one liked doing it.

Michael Norton: We used too go to when I was a kid to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston and at some point when I was a kid I think my parents realized that mainly what it was was super drunk college students just shouting and throwing stuff around. So they were like you know what? Let’s just put an end to that tradition. We’ll not go to the parade anymore. So yeah things change.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s good. What about rituals in grieving? There’s a lot of rituals around that. What does your research say about that?

Michael Norton: This is a case where if not to overclaim but really if you look at any faith or any culture there is some practice around death and loss. They vary really really widely. Even the color that is used in some cultures you wear black. In other cultures you wear white. In other cultures it’s red and other cultures it’s green. But there is a decided upon color there’s a decided upon ceremony that helps us get through grief. And those ceremonies are incredibly important for people in bringing their family together, giving them social support, connecting them with their faith. These are all key elements of grief. And also what we see is people again are freelancing their own little rituals. So they absolutely go to a funeral. And then if we say what else did you do? They say well actually another thing that I did was I listened to my mom’s favorite song every morning on the way to work for a year. There’s no 2000 year old text that says listen to your mom’s favorite song on your way to work obviously. So what are people doing? Well the funeral is one day and now we’re still grieving. And so people come up with their own little rituals not candles and people in robes rituals but their own little practices to try to honor the person that they lost.

Brett McKay: Again these rituals are helping with the stress of losing somebody. It’s a process. You know if I do these things even though I’m feeling bad I can do these things to keep moving through this process.

Michael Norton: Grief is such a complicated series of emotions. It’s not just one emotion but one of the key predictors of grief is feeling a lack of control because this terrible thing happened that you absolutely did not want to happen and you were powerless to stop it from happening. And that loss of control is in and of itself a predictor of the intensity of your grief because as we discussed earlier, we do not like to feel that we don’t have control especially over the things that are most important to us. And researchers have suggested that rituals in the face of grief, they’re orderly practiced events that we’ve inherited that then might be also part of restoring a little bit of a sense of control in these moments where we really feel out of control.

Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about people creating their own DIY version of a ritual. Do you have any advice on how people can create their own rituals? When should they create a ritual for something? Any tactics on how to create a ritual or do we just have an intuitive sense on how to do this already?

Michael Norton: I think so. The first step that I always suggest people do is actually to take an inventory of their current rituals, because even if you’re someone who thinks I don’t do these I’m not a new agey millennial or whatever you might think, you absolutely are doing them in various parts of your life and if you don’t think you’re doing them you can ask your significant other. You can ask your kids, you can ask your coworkers, do I do anything and they’ll be happy to tell you all of the quirky things that you’re up to. And I think even before thinking about adding anything, because if I said you know what’s great is to meditate for six hours every day, it’s like well thanks for the advice but I don’t have six hours every day to meditate. That sounds great. I do think actually recognizing where you already have them and then owning them a little bit more, recognizing that these are little practices, recognizing what you and your spouse do when you say goodbye in the morning, that in and of itself can already be a start on seeing the important roles that rituals are playing in your life.

Brett McKay: Well Michael this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Michael Norton: is the easiest and actually we developed a quiz so if you go to the website just click quiz and it’s a very quick quiz but we ask you about rituals in different domains of your life. Speaking of doing an inventory that kind of tells you which domains are you high and low on and where might you think about trying some different things.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Michael Norton thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Michael Norton: Thank you so much Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Michael Norton. He’s the author of the book The Ritual Effect. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website Also check out our show notes at You can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. The Art of Manliness website has been around for over 16 years now and the podcast for over 10. And they both have always had one aim to help men take action to improve every area of their lives to become better friends, citizens, husbands and fathers, better men. If you’ve gotten something out of the AOM podcast please consider giving back by leaving a review or sharing an episode with a friend. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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