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Surprise Negativity Buster: Rituals

Creating small, secular rituals can help you clear your brain and get rid of negative thoughts, according to scientists.
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At first glance, you might associate rituals more with monks than with busy professionals. But that's a mistake, according to the British Psychological Society Research Digest. Recent research suggests that small, secular rituals can help even complete non-believers deal with negativity, the blog reports.

BPS cites a study that created feelings of loss and disappointment by inviting volunteers into the lab and announcing one of them would win $200. The participants were left to stew about how nice it would be to score the cash for awhile and instructed to write down what they would do with the windfall. Then one of them was duly handed the money and the rest, presumably, felt the sting of disappointment.

Now here's where it gets interesting. Half of these disappointed subjects were then told to perform a seemingly meaningless little ritual. "They drew their feelings about losing on a piece of paper, sprinkled salt on the drawing, tore it up, then counted to 10," BPS reports. The rest simply drew their feelings.

Despite the silliness of sprinkling salt, "the ritual students subsequently reported experiencing less upset and anger than the controls."

And this isn’t the only study to find that rituals, however silly they may seem, actually work. The Association for Psychological Science reports on research, which found "that when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well."

You'll probably get some strange looks if you start sprinkling salt on scraps of paper at the office, so how can business owners actually put this insight to use without raising eyebrows? A former managing director at JP Morgan with an unusual resume offered one idea of the HBR blog networks recently.

Before he went into business, Chris Lowney spent six years as a Jesuit seminarian and he suggests that at least one Jesuit ritual can be usefully translated into a secular context. He explains:

One discipline in particular proved far more valuable than anything I learned in JP Morgan's superb training program. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, called it the "examen." It would be equally useful to anyone else who must engage a complex, fast-paced world each day. (I think that means all of us, right?)

The English word examine roughly conveys the concept: to examine your day and take stock. With apologies to my spiritual father Ignatius, I often refer to it more colloquially as a "mental pit stop." I recommend two of them daily — one at midday, for example, and one at the end of the day — completely dedicating at least five minutes to each one. (Sorry, multi-taskers — listening to sports radio, texting, or listening to cell phone messages would not qualify for completely dedicated.)

During those few minutes, do three things. First, remind yourself why you are grateful as a human being. Second, lift your horizon for a moment. Call to mind some crucial personal objective, or your deepest sense of purpose, or the values you stand for. Third, mentally review the last few hours and extract some insight that might help in the next few hours. If you were agitated, what was going on inside you? If you were distracted and unproductive, why? 

In a world where "we surf a tide of emails, texts, meetings, calls, day-to-day problems, and distractions. We never find time to step back," writes Lowney. This simple ritual can help you maintain perspective and clear out negativity. Plus, gratitude has been shown to be one of the biggest happiness boosters around.

Do you have any little rituals you use to keep centered during the day?

 

Last updated: Mar 25, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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