Looking for greater meaning and fulfillment? It turns out, adding daily habits to your life could greatly improve your sense of wellbeing and purpose, as Rosie Ifould writes…
Most of us have small rituals we often hold sacred. ‘Even though I love spending Christmas with my family, my favourite day of the holidays is always 27 December,’ says Emma.
‘It’s when I meet up with my two oldest friends, and we walk through the woods at the back of my parents’ house. We don’t see each other that often now, because one of us lives in Dubai, but we’ve taken that walk the day after Boxing Day every year since we were 13.’
How daily habits work to improve your life
Whether it’s a special evening out, such as an annual reunion dinner, or a simple daily act, like the bedtime stories we enjoy sharing with our children, small rituals are vital.
‘Rituals are important for us all, whatever our age or stage,’ says Dr Eolene Boyd-MacMillan of the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity. ‘They keep us in touch with our values and ideals, and reinforce a sense of belonging.’
Seemingly small acts can actually bring a greater sense of meaning to our lives. Not only can rituals help to keep us grounded by establishing a positive sense of rhythm to our chaotic daily routine, they can also boost our sense of connection to the people we love.
The importance of tradition
‘People who are past-oriented tend to be happier than those who focus on the present or future. They are usually the people who put most value on rituals and traditions,’ explains Dr Ilona Boniwell, author of Positive Psychology in a Nutshell (Open University Press).
‘They are the people who never forget birthdays, who uphold long-standing family commitments. They constantly reinforce their traditions.’
We perform many ritual acts without thinking, but we soon notice when they’re not there. And we can all make more of the habits we perform in our daily life to give us a greater sense of fulfilment and improve our wellbeing.
Make habits more deliberate
The personal, often private, acts that make up our day are just as important as those we share with others. It has been found that when people take even a very short amount of time for themselves on a daily basis, it contributes enormously to their sense of wellbeing.
Being deliberate in our habitual behaviours can transform them into more significant actions. It could be something as simple as creating a ritual when you are going home from the office – taking time to turnoff the computer, close the blinds and straighten your desk.
‘These actions can help to focus our attention, but also they give us something reliable to hold on to,’ explains psychotherapist Ingrid Collins.
‘We know life can be unreliable, but these things become a comfort, a little island of safety in the day, where you’re in control of where you are, what you’re doing, what you’re wanting.’
Create daily habits with friends to improve your life
‘Rituals embody our need to belong; they facilitate co-operation and emotional bonding,’ says Boyd-MacMillan, so it’s little wonder the traditions we share with others are often the ones that bring us most pleasure.
Interestingly, research shows that it’s the time we share with friends, rather than family, that brings us the greatest sense of wellbeing.
‘Overall, our wellbeing depends most on having a drink or a meal with friends,’ says Boniwell. ‘Although spending time with our children brings us the greatest sense of meaning, it’s also less likely to make us feel happy.’
And although tradition is important to us, if we feel that we’re being coerced into going to Granny’s every Christmas, or spending Sundays with our in-laws ‘because it’s what we always do’, we swiftly begin to feel powerless and miserable. So establishing new traditions with friends serves as a good counterpoint to a heavy sense of duty.
Make your actions count
Simply making an arrangement to meet with people you love can give you a sense of connection, but our bond becomes even stronger when there is some element of shared activity with friends. ‘One of the things we do at a religious service is sing together, which is partly what makes the songs so powerful, but in our everyday lives, it’s something we don’t often have the chance to do,’ says Collins.
In practice, this might mean that you incorporate going to a carol service into your Christmas Eve drinks with old friends – or it might even mean karaoke. Or it could be something more low-key that becomes a significant act, like saying a prayer together if you’re religious. But creating something that has an element of ceremony enhances the significance of the event.
Engage with your emotions
Part of the reason we value rituals so much, is because they depend on repetition. ‘It’s such a pleasure not only to co-create a lovely atmosphere with a community of people, but to have the knowledge that having done it once, we can go back and do it again,’ explains Collins.
But the way we reflect on how daily habits improve your life can make a difference to how significant they become. The key, Boniwell believes, is to ‘go back to an event and re-engage with it emotionally’.
Try looking at some photographs, or eating the same foods that stimulate a good memory, and allow yourself to feel the same positive emotions. Reminisce about the good feelings you had at the time, and then you can look forward to doing it all over again.