That's the contention of a review of 50 years of research that appears in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
Many Americans regularly engage in routines and rituals, and these practices help to improve their mental and physical health and sense of belonging, according to the researchers who did the analysis of 32 studies.
Routine events, such as evening dinners together as a family, provide comfort simply by being predictable events people can count on, says study author Barbara Fiese, a psychologist at Syracuse University in New York.
And many still favor rituals associated with important events, such as Christmas Mass, bar mitzvahs and funerals. These rituals, in turn, enhance emotional well-being, she says.
Fiese wasn't surprised by the findings, but she was buoyed by them. "I'm encouraged. It helps to dispel myths that families don't practice rituals and routines. They are alive and well," she says.
The information for her analysis was relatively sparse when one considers what is covered in a period of 50 years. However, people interviewed for the studies during that period reported participating in many routines and rituals, and the research shows each confers different benefits, Fiese says.
Routines are acts done regularly that need to be done, such as eating or preparing for bed, which take time but are seldom thought about afterward, she says.
"Having some predictability in life around routines is positive," Fiese says.
Children flourish when they can predict things in their life, such as family dinners or regular bedtimes, the study found. Regular family dinners, even if only for 20 minutes a day, are the most common routine.
"If you look at dinner time, for example, it's not happening seven days a week but usually four or five times," Fiese says. "Even that short period of time has a positive effect. It's related to physical health in infants and children and academic performance in elementary children."
Rituals, on the other hand, are symbolic practices people do or celebrate that help define who they are -- and about which they often reminisce, she notes.
The meaningful, symbolic parts of rituals seem to help emotional development and satisfaction with family relationships. When rituals are continued during times of stress, such as a divorce, they lessen the negative impact.
"They have the potential to protect kids from risks associated with one-parent families," Fiese says. "It seems that at points of transition, such as school or marriage, rituals can increase one's sense of security."
The studies reviewed were extremely diverse in the way they were conducted. That made it impossible to make comparisons between them to come to certain conclusions, such as how many routines or rituals are necessary to bring about improved health, Fiese says.
For example, although family dinner was found to be the most consistent routine, three to four times a week seemed average. "I don't know if that means five is better or two is bad," she says.
Irene Goldenberg is a family therapist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In family therapy, Goldenberg says, therapists routinely advise people to create rituals they can follow because "they are so important. They represent an order and a sense of logic. They make the family more of a unit and tend to make it clear what the values are in the family."
Goldenberg says every ritual stands for something, such as marriage, which is an entrance into a family, or a funeral, which is recognition of the end of a life. They give people an opportunity to "talk about developing life forces."
As for routines, she adds, "I think everyone can understand why those are comfortable."
Fiese cautions that as people near the holidays, they shouldn't feel that because rituals and routines are beneficial, they must be strictly adhered to, even if they cause stress.
It may be beneficial to identify three things you dread about the holidays, and avoid them. Conversely, you can identify three things you look forward to, such as baking a particular type of cookie, and "make sure you preserve those things," she says.
What To Do
To learn more about the value of rituals to family life, visit ChildCareAware or read this paper offered by Kansas State University. To read it, you'll need the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download by clicking here.