When Repeating a Pattern is a Good Thing

Every year in October, I haul boxes of Autumn decorations out, and add orange-red leaves, berry garlands, and Halloween-themed creep to my home. The day after Thanksgiving, I pull it all down, pack up the boxes, pull out Winter and Christmas decorations, storybooks, and snowflakes. In February, hearts and pink things, in March and April, baskets of hand-painted eggs. My family eyes the entire production with wary eyes, sarcastic remarks, and – when they’re in charge of the hauling, a lot of groaning.

One year, really busy with work, I skipped the October ritual. “Where’s that snow globe thing with the scarecrow?” “Why isn’t The Halloweiner book out?” “We’re decorating this weekend, though, right?”

In that moment, I realized that not only were the decorations pleasing to me, but were part of my family’s tradition and important to them too. Every year, my now almost 16 year old reads every picture book we’ve collected and put out for holidays. Every year, my mostly grown step-son examines the Christmas tree for three specific ornaments. The grown step-daughter leads her partner through the house in Spring, sharing her experiences with Easter egg decorating, proudly explaining her role in why I only have wooden eggs, not the hollow-blown eggs from my own childhood. In the Fall, the youngest – still young enough for trick or treating – gleefully pulls the lids off decorated tins, hoping I’ve pre-stocked for the 31st.

Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions, highlights some of the benefits of these rituals: They give us a sense of shared identity and belonging. They organize our world and give us a sense of structure. They help us navigate change. They provide comfort and security. They help us cope with loss and trauma. They generate wonderful memories. They also help mark the passage of time, elicit pleasurable hormone releases, and can be a tool for athletes, employees, therapists, and others to create the expectation of success.

Chances are, you already have traditions or rituals. Do you always wash your windshield when you pump gas? Do you always sing the ‘clean up’ song when your children are picking up toys? Those rituals are creating boosts in your pleasure hormones and in your family’s as well! If you break into song whenever you hear Bruno Mars, Abba or Elvis and someone rolls their eyes, likely, you are also boosting your - and the eye-rollers’ - dopamine and serotonin levels too.

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