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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

What’s your favorite ritual? Is it a family ritual? A religious ritual? Perhaps a meaningful practice you look forward to every day or once a week?

For years, I noodled with the idea of writing a book on the power of ritual. I’m glad I didn’t because Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard, has just released The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harnessing the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions. I hope it becomes a classic.

Did you know that Keith Richards always has a piece of shepherd’s pie right before he steps onstage with the Rolling Stones? Or that Serena Williams always bounced the ball five times before her first serve (and two times before her second)? 

Norton argues that rituals are “emotional catalysts” that have the potential to energize, inspire, and elevate us. Rituals, he believes, have the potential to “enhance and enchant” our lives. 

Raised as an Irish Catholic, Norton admits that he resisted going to mass when he was growing up. The rituals of mass never connected with him. He felt like he was just going through the motions.

What he loved, however, were the annual rituals of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Of course, he also appreciated certain family rituals. He writes about one popular song that his mom would begin to sing whenever the kids were not listening, and how, years later, that song still has special meaning to his brothers and sisters. 

Where the book hit home with me (I couldn’t resist) was the author’s argument that rituals are not some old, worn-out relic of the past. Norton writes about what he calls “The Great Enchantment.” Did you know about SoulCycle’s candlelit rooms? Or that businesses hire ritual consultants? His section on new DIY rituals confirmed that we are still pattern-seeking creatures.

Another favorite section of the book focused on parent-child rituals. Norton describes the 17-step nighttime ritual that helps his child fall asleep. He writes: “The ritual was not just for my daughter; it was for me, too.”

Trained as a social psychologist, Norton brilliantly braids together “the science of rituals” with examples across the ritual constellation: personal rituals, relationship rituals, holiday rituals, mourning rituals, workplace rituals, and even healing/reconciliation rituals. 

Yet, I wish he would have added one more section. There was very little in the book about rituals in K-12 schools. Personally, I will never forget reading Hal Urban’s book and learning that Hal, a high school teacher, always stood outside of his classroom and welcomed every student to his class, taking the time to ask each student a meaningful question, whether it was about their family or what he knew they cared about (sports, movies, etc.).  

Schools have become ritual “hotspots” for a lot of kids – safe places that offer our students meaningful opportunities to experience positive emotions and feel connected, especially when the ritual has become a part of who they are and what they believe in. In short, classroom and school-wide rituals have the power to create a spirit of “we” that helps every student feel “I belong.”

I hope one day to meet the author of The Ritual Effect and give him a hearty fist bump. His book affirmed what was stirring in my heart on so many levels. 

Note: Do you have a ritual that is especially meaningful to you, whether a personal ritual, a relationship ritual, or a classroom or school-wide ritual? I would love to learn why the ritual is so meaningful to you. Please reach out to me at arthur@character.org.

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