Would birthday cake taste as good without the lit candles and the song? Probably not.
We use rituals every day: morning rituals, evening rituals, holiday and birthday rituals, anniversary rituals, as well as religious rituals. They increase meaning, significance, and evoke a sense of tradition and family. New research also suggests ritual behaviors increase the satisfaction in behaviors like eating.
A recent story on NPR (June 20, 2013) by their social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, covered a soon to be published article by Harvard University Behavioral Scientist Francesca Gino and colleagues, Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang and Michael Norton, giving evidence to the idea that creating rituals before eating increases the satisfaction of the experience.
Gino's study had volunteers divided into two groups, with each person being given a chocolate bar to eat. Half were instructed to follow a procedure where they carefully unwrapped half the bar, savored it, and ate the second half later. The second group just went ahead and ate their bar all at once.
Guess which group enjoyed their chocolate bar more? It was the first group who ate their chocolate more mindfully. This process was retested with carrots, and the same effect occurred. Those who ate more mindfully experienced better taste and indicated they would pay more for the experience.
What did the researchers conclude? Performing rituals before eating increases the satisfaction and enjoyment of eating. The ritual must be done each time in the same way, like communion at a church service.
So, singing happy birthday and blowing out the candles after making wishes before eating the birthday cake will likely increase the enjoyment of the cake. A shared toast or prayer before dinner will add to the meaning and satisfaction of dinner.
The researchers determined that it is not enough to observe a ritual, it is essentially different to participate in it. It's the active participation that seems key.
There are rituals which have existed for thousands of years, traditions we either inherit from our families or create for ourselves, and habits which we develop. Ritualistic behavior can get out of hand and become a problem if it makes us obsessive, but the right amount of ritual in your life can make your life more satisfying, enjoyable, and meaningful. (Not to mention tastier!)
You might reflect on how traditions and rituals in your day and your week make your life better. Perhaps you enjoy a first cup of coffee or tea each morning, bond with your dog through play, water your flowers after work, tuck in your children in bed with stories and cuddling, enjoy a walk in your neighborhood and notice little changes as the seasons pass. Mindfulness in living does create more meaning in the small things of everyday life, including the chocolate.