There is an irony to New Year’s Eve celebrations, which I reflect on regularly due to my specific field of psychological study: the rituals that humans perform. On December 31st, we stay up late (by definition), we drink too much, we kiss people we might not otherwise kiss. And then, on January 1, we plan to become perfect with our resolutions to sleep more, drink less, and spend more time with our loved ones.
But do we really want to live a life of perfect habits: to be someone who gets up at the same time every day, eats the same healthy breakfast, exercises for the same duration, never eats ice cream or drinks wine, and is in bed? At 9pm?
Habits are great, but they are very black and white. Rituals come in technicolor. I have come to believe that many rituals are a unique human invention to remind us to try, at least occasionally, to live fully. And a new ritual can be joyful in a way that a new habit is not.
Rituals remind us to savor our experiences. Phrases like “stop and smell the roses” are directly contrary to trying to maximize our productivity every minute of our lives, which should make us view the latter with suspicion. We probably shouldn’t drink champagne every day, but the New Year offers us the excuse or, rather, the opportunity to participate in the act of savoring it. Retrieve that fancy glass we rarely use, uncork it, offer a few words of thanks and good luck, clink the glass, and then let the fizz tickle your taste buds. It’s better than opening a soda on the couch.
Even rituals that encourage us to consume less can serve as a reminder to savor when we consume more. Anyone who has ever given up eating or drinking for a religious holiday (Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Lent) knows that returning to consumption makes what was lost taste much better. And this is supported by investigation: Taking breaks from the things we love (from music to massage chairs) makes those experiences more enjoyable.
Another benefit associated with rituals: they remind us to savor our experiences. with others. They encourage us to take the time to gather with our loved ones in a way we otherwise wouldn’t. Drinking champagne with other people is better than drinking soda and drinking alone.
In a poll In the study my research team conducted with over 150 people, nearly 40% reported that their family had an annual New Year’s tradition. Often, these respondents’ ceremonial events centered around specific drinks (Crown Royal with Canada Dry or Russian vodka with cranberry juice) that were consumed together only. that night. Interestingly, 90% of those who said they had a family ritual also said they met in person on New Year’s Eve. But in the case of families that did not have a unifying ritual, barely more than half were reunited.
If you think about your own extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins), you’ll probably realize that most, if not all, of your interactions with them have occurred during the holidays. Would you even know your Uncle Bob if it weren’t for Thanksgiving? It is the special occasions that serve as the stimulus to come together, and without those stimuli, suddenly our families cannot come together and can go from being extended to being separated.
And enacting our traditions together helps even more than just getting together. In our study, people who reported that their families gathered to celebrate a New Year’s ritual not only enjoyed the day more, but also reported being less distracted and more present compared to people whose families gathered but did not share a special tradition.
Even if by an extraordinary act of willpower we manage to get through January with perfect habits, we inevitably run into Valentine’s Day in February, when we encourage the people we love to eat more chocolate. And of course, March brings St. Patrick’s Day, and we all know what happens then. Time and time again, many of our traditions and rituals remind us to savor life.
It can be good to meet at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and promise to try to live a healthier life. But even though our resolution for this year is the same Like last year, and perhaps even the year before, our stubborn refusal to toe the line of self-discipline may not be indicative of total failure. Rather, it could be evidence that we once again spent a rich and interesting year doing fun things outside the lines with our loved ones.
Michael Norton is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of the forthcoming book, “The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions.”