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Ritual vs. Habit

I've been reading an entertaining book to my grandchildren recently: Shark vs. Train, by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld. I've also been noodling about the plethora of articles I've read lately about developing healthy habits during the current pandemic, and a few questions suddenly leapt to mind. Is there a difference between habit and ritual? Does it really matter? Can ritual address the growing presence of burnout and loneliness in the legal profession?

First, is there a difference, and if so, what is it? Well, to my mind, there is an important difference. Simply put, habit is personal and ritual is communal. Sure, a collective of like-minded individuals who dedicate themselves to the same idea or practice, can give rise to a shared value that becomes more broadly observed-- that'd be an example of bottom-up behavior, where individual habits coalesce to effectuate a larger group change.

On the other hand, there is top-down behavior change, which begins with a group of institutional leaders and is then communicated to the individual women and men who make up the institution. That'd be an example of what I regard as ritual, where the many are led by the few. Both the bottom-up approach and the top-down approach have their plusses and minuses-- that is best analyzed and understood by qualified academics and behavior scientists.

Like Emma Sappala, Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project, Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism, and author of the book, The Happiness Track. She and Marissa King (professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management) recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, "Burnout at Work Isn't Just About Exhaustion. It's Also About Loneliness".

Among the many salient and well-documented points made, one thing in particular caught my eye--the statement that, "ritual builds solidarity; increases a sense of belonging, and can help guard against burnout [and loneliness] " (emphasis added). Which leads to the second question raised above-- if there is a difference between habit and ritual, does it really matter? Sure it does-- consider the implications of the above-quoted conclusion.

So, on to the third question: Can institutionally-promoted ritual help us address the concerns of workplace burnout and loneliness throughout the business world, and particularly, in our law firms? Even lawyers (who are generally strong-minded, independent individuals), understand the concept of strength in numbers-- that's why law firms exist. And even though most social media postings tend to celebrate individual achievement rather than collective accomplishment, lawyers understand the need and usefulness of collaboration with others in the service of client needs-- that's what lies at the heart of cross-marketing.

Collective ritual (as opposed to individual habit) does make a difference. Mindfulness and meditation may not be traditional or top-of-mind to some as secular rituals that are necessary components of the broader well-being concern, but they provide important tools in the battle against workplace burnout and/or loneliness.

Re-entry to the workplace is happening. Moments that were previously familiar and not remarkable, may suddenly become jarring and downright uncomfortable. Can we simply return to old ways, or will we innovate? Will we incorporate new rituals into the old? Can we evolve, or will we revert to prior form-- prior practices?

Whatever the case, as we move forward, we should be remembered of the importance of ritual, and the ancient but ever-new practices of mindfulness and meditation!



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