How to turn your routine into a ritual

An excerpt from 'Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most.'
September 6, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC
'Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most' by Cassie Holmes
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

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We humans have a powerful propensity to adapt after continued and repeated exposure. Researchers call this hedonic adaptation. Seeing the same thing, doing the same thing, or being with the same person again and again lowers its impact on our emotional experience. Put simply, we get used to things over time. We stop paying quite as much attention.

Hedonic adaptation is helpful in diminishing the pain of bad experiences. Yet it also diminishes the pleasure of good experiences.

Change, however, makes us pause and pay attention. For instance, if you swapped in a spoonful of mint ice cream after your eighth bite of chocolate-caramel, you’d notice. Jordan Etkin and I conducted research showing that greater variety among good stuff keeps us engaged—and therefore happier.

Here’s another way to offset hedonic adaptation. Rather than simply paying more attention to the ordinary, you can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary.

By the time my daughter Lita started preschool, I knew our commutes together wouldn’t last, so I had to make the most of them while they did. That realization prompted the creation of Lita’s and my standing Thursday Morning Coffee Date. I italicize the name because this event is that important and held in that high a regard. Our Thursday Morning Coffee Date is a momentous occasion highly anticipated by both Lita and me. It is respected and slightly envied by brother and dad. It is fiercely protected in my calendar. It is well-memorialized in photos (taken on my phone). And it is known from afar: Lita’s teachers and friends and my students have heard about it. It’s a thing.

After every Thursday morning carpool, as soon as the big kids tumble out of the car at my son Leo’s school, our date begins. It starts with song. “Hey, Siri, play…” Though you wouldn’t want to hear me singing my selection of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” Lita’s renditions of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Whitney Houston’s “Higher Love” are inspired. Upon arrival at our local coffee shop, Profeta, the baristas welcome us with a smile (in itself a sought-after and hard-earned achievement). Even though we wreck the place’s vibe, they have come to like us and appreciate our weekly ritual. And despite the long line, once we reach the counter, they patiently wait as Lita shyly builds up the courage to place her order: “May I please have a hot chocolate in a small mug and a plain croissant?” They know I’d like a nonfat flat white. Lita is particularly thrilled when Max is pouring, because he takes extra care in crafting heart flowers in the milk foam on top. Sipping our warm drinks and covering the table with croissant flakes, Lita and I celebrate our morning. It’s our treasured time, just the two of us.

We transformed what would otherwise have been a routine caffeine stop. We turned this habit into a cherished, ritualized tradition. We gave it a name. We established implicit and explicit codes of con- duct. We took pictures. Thanks to all of these deliberate features, we can talk about it, we know what to expect, and we have documentation to help hold it in our memories. We made it special. Whereas habits serve to help get us through the day without extra thought, traditions imbue these passing moments with greater meaning. Traditions serve to connect us to each other and across time. They give us a sense of belonging.

Author Cassie Mogilner Holmes is a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.
Diana Henderson

To offset hedonic adaptation, name the event. Instead of just scheduling evenings for you and your partner (or you and your friend) to go out to dinner, call it “a date.” Even that simple reframing makes it more significant. Put extra thought and care into the components of the event, like seven-year-old James did when setting his family’s dinner table with special plates to match the evening’s motif. Or use different utensils. One experiment showed that participants instructed to eat their popcorn using chopsticks (instead of their fingers as usual) enjoyed the popcorn and their overall snack time more. Special touches don’t have to be fancy. Yes, you could pull out the crystal and silver you received as wedding gifts to amp up a dinner date at home. But you could also simply put a frond from your backyard in a jar to create a centerpiece. Or try arranging your place settings on your front stoop, so that you can honestly tell your children (and yourselves) that you’re “going out” for your weekly Dinner Date (especially useful during the COVID stay-at-home period).

Within your relationships, call out an enjoyed piece of your shared routine as a ritual. Refer to it as your tradition. This could apply to anything—an afternoon coffee run with a colleague, a movie night with a roommate, or going out to dinner with your partner. One couple I know kicks off every dinner out together with a shot of tequila. I once joined them in this tradition and can attest that it certainly anoints the evening as a celebration! There is value in having shared rituals. Research has shown that in the context of romantic relationships, for instance, having explicit shared rituals increases relationship satisfaction and commitment.

The benefit of having established traditions doesn’t just pertain to ordinary events. By connecting us to each other and to other times, traditions help get us through funerals, they make weddings more meaningful, and they enrich the experience of annual holidays. A study showed that families who have holiday traditions are more likely together during these times of year. Not only are these families more likely to spend this time together but they enjoy it more. So, state your family’s traditions. And if you don’t already have them, make them. There is no good reason why my family eats fondue every Christmas Eve other than “that’s what we do”…and dipping bread in melted cheese is ridiculously delicious.

All of this is about celebrating these moments such that you can’t help but notice them. It’s about sanctifying this time, making it more meaningful.

Excerpted from Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most by Cassie Holmes. Copyright © 2022 by Cassie Mogilner Holmes. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.