I can’t wait.” “I’m really looking forward to it.” “I’m so excited.” Or conversely, “I’m dreading it.” “I don’t know how I’ll get through it.” “Even the thought of it makes me feel sick.” These phrases, and plenty more like them, litter our conversations. More often than not they are flippant, throw-away fillers, things we say to lubricate our chat and keep it moving along. However, when we use them with intent – that is to express what we are really feeling (even if we’re only talking to ourselves or thinking out loud) – they are examples of anticipatory thinking.
One of the most powerful tools in the brain’s box of tricks, anticipatory thinking can lift our spirits, or, in instances where we know with certainty that something painful is heading our way – such as redundancy, friends moving away, or a traumatic medical treatment – it can put us in the brace position, metaphorically speaking, and in so doing marginally lessen the impact of the blow.
When anticipation is centred around enjoyable things it’s “free happiness,” say social psychologists Liz Dunn and Mike Norton – a thought process we rely on to perk ourselves up. Looking forward to something, be it stepping out for a sandwich at lunchtime, meeting a friend after work, the weekend, a birthday, a date, or simply just going home to watch TV at the end of a long day, is like an emotional massage. It releases the tension of the present, promising us comfort, relaxation, gratification, and other positive feelings a little further down the road.
Psychiatrist Dr Neel Burton, author of Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking and Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, explains it beautifully: “Anticipation gives us context, perspective and direction. Planning things we enjoy reminds and reassures us that we can inject pleasure even into the most humdrum, frustrating of days, and spurs us on, giving us the motivation to keep going.”
What makes anticipatory thinking such an effective pick-me-up, says Dr Burton, is the fact that it often centres on easily attainable pleasures. “That immediacy is key when we’re in a slump. Of course, long-term plans, such as a longed-for holiday, also help, but what really does the trick on a day-to-day basis is being able to look forward to something that is going to happen very, very soon.”
An obvious example is how we gee ourselves up when we’re struggling at work. We might get through the morning by looking forward to a walk at lunch, and the afternoon by thinking about going home to watch a box set, see our loved ones, play with a pet, or get an early night. Thinking about future enjoyment, even on the smallest scale, gives us the lift we need to get through situations we find irksome.
What’s even more interesting is the fact that anticipating the future stirs up stronger emotions than experiencing the present or contemplating the past, which means that thinking about the fun we’re going to have can be more enjoyable than the fun we’re having or have had!
This was the point made by Patrick Marsden, head of travel at sustainable design firm, MaCher, at ABTA’s Travel Convention last year. He highlighted the importance of anticipation in holiday planning and referred to research that showed that 50 percent of traveller happiness occurs in the run-up to the holiday – versus 35 percent of happiness when they got back and 15 percent on the actual trip.
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Psychologists have known this for years. In 2007, Leaf Van Boven, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Laurence Ashworth, associate professor at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, Canada, published similar findings. In the numerous studies they conducted, people reported more intense feelings when contemplating future events than when thinking about things that had already happened.
In each case, when emotional responses were measured, levels of excitement and happiness were higher when participants were asked to think about a prospective holiday, say, than when they were remembering one they’d had, irrespective of how brilliant that had been. “The enjoyment people glean from anticipation might also be an important component of life satisfaction,” they concluded. In other words, looking forward to something adds to our overall contentment.
But how does anticipatory thinking help us when what we see ahead of us is not a treat of some description but something awful, something that is going to cause us enormous pain? Gary Klein, professor of experimental psychology and author of several books, including Sources of Power: How People make Decisions; The Power of Intuition and Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, explains: “Well, it’s a sense-making process, one that helps us recognise and prepare for difficult challenges. It’s a preparation exercise, a way of getting ourselves ready, and can be particularly useful when we’re faced with events we find extremely threating or stressful.”
Professor Klein says anticipation is not about trying to guess the future and how it will affect us, “but about trying to adapt and ready ourselves for a range of possible futures”. If we take redundancy or retirement as an example, we won’t know what the impact of the loss of structured daily occupation will be, but anticipatory thinking might prompt us to put certain procedures in place to protect us from feeling too lost and anchorless.
It can also help us cope with even more traumatic situations, for instance when either we, or those we love, are given a life-shattering diagnosis. In those situations, people will often go through anticipatory grief, imagining the different stages of the illness and its possible effects on all concerned, and experiencing many of the emotions that bereavement induces, including sadness, guilt, anger, anxiety, disbelief and, ultimately, acceptance and resolution.
Though nothing can really prepare us for death, there is evidence to suggest that anticipatory grief can at least help us come to terms with the situation, as well as providing us with opportunities to resolve practical and personal issues, and, as much as is possible, to make the most of whatever time is left.
Perhaps most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to say what we need to say. As Dr Ira Byock, an expert in palliative care, writes in The Four Things That Matter Most, anticipatory grief gives people the chance to say the things we most want to hear and express, namely: “I love you”, “thank you”, “forgive me” and “I forgive you.” These are, after all, the pillars of life and if anticipatory thinking prompts us to say them – regardless of whether or not they are pinned to a sad event – then that is a wonderful service it performs.
4 ways to make the most of anticipation
Do some research in advance
If you are in the process of booking an event, be it a holiday, a play or a dinner out, you can increase your excitement by doing some research. Perhaps the restaurant is in a part of town you’re not familiar with, or in a notable building; or maybe the play and the playwright have an interesting backstory? Have any films been set in the destination you’re visiting? Finding out the answer to these questions will boost your engagement and anticipation levels.
Reclaim your lunch break
Plan to do something different at lunchtime. This can be anything, from going to a sandwich bar you’ve not been to before, to wandering down streets you don’t know. The very fact that you’ve got something new to do will lift your spirits as you work through your morning chores.
Make exciting plans
Regularly schedule a few things to look forward to and aim for a balance between small and big activities, and between ones you can do in the immediate future and others that will take longer to come to fruition.
Savour each event
Remember to enjoy the before, the during and the after of your treat, even if it is nothing more than a bar of chocolate. The looking forward to having it is important, but make sure you savour the thing you have been looking forward to. If it is a chocolate bar, give yourself a five-minute break from work to eat it without distraction, and afterwards think about the pleasure it gave you.
Illustrations from Getty Images.