How to embrace anticipation and enjoy life more

BY Holly Burns

7th Aug 2023 Life

How to embrace anticipation and enjoy life more
It's easy to slip into anxiety about the future, but how can we embrace anticipation and get more enjoyment out of life?
Alle Pierce knows how to plan a vacation. A few months ahead of time, she “goes on a crazy Google spree,” constructing a spreadsheet of all the things she wants to do and see. She scrutinizes the menus of restaurants she is planning to visit. She uses a picture of the destination as her phone’s locked screen image and downloads a countdown app.
“What’s so exciting about a trip is the anticipation before it,” says Pierce, founder of a luxury travel company called Gals Abroad Getaways, which plans group trips for women. Experts say she is probably right. Numerous studies suggest that having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress.
"There are ways to harness and incorporate the power of anticipation into your everyday life"
“Imagining good things ahead of us makes us feel better in the current moment,” says Simon A Rego, chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York. “It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.”
Of course we can’t just book a flight every time we need a little cheering up. But there are ways to harness and incorporate the power of anticipation into your everyday life.

Get excited about a lot of little things

Anticipating a smattering of small, delightful experiences can be as enjoyable as looking forward to one big event, says Carrie L Wyland, a social psychologist at Tulane University in New Orleans.
“At the end of everyday, write down one thing you’re excited for tomorrow,” she says. “Maybe it’s a new book, or getting pastries, or a package you’re expecting.”
How to embrace anticipation
The accumulation of these mini thrills means you will still reap the benefits of looking forward to something, even if it’s not a big-ticket reward, says Christian E Waugh, a psychology professor who studies anticipation at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Plus, with the nearer stuff, there’s more of a sense it’s going to happen for sure,” he says. “You’ve got more control over a small gathering this evening than a vacation in six months.”

Connect with your future self

Research has shown that feeling as if you are on a path to your future self can have a positive effect on your wellbeing by snapping you out of short-term thinking. Thinking ahead may help you prioritise your health and maybe even act more ethically.
While it’s fun to day-dream about your future self, the steps you need to take to get there can be intimidating, so start with clarifying the things in life you value the most, Rego says. Then set goals around them.
"Feeling as if you are on a path to your future self can have a positive effect on your wellbeing"
If your priority is staying fit as you age, maybe your goal is to run a five-klilometre race. But don’t wait to feel motivated before you take that first step. Instead, when you do something toward your goal, “focus on how motivated you feel afterward, not before,” he says. 
As you start seeing progress, it will get easier: You will look forward to doing the things that get you closer to your future self.

Consider a gentle bribe

Anyone who has taken a child to get a flu shot and then ice cream afterward knows the power of building anticipation for a thing you don’t want to do by pairing it with a thing you do. In a study on “temptation bundling,” participants who were given an iPod loaded with audiobooks that they could listen to only at the gym worked out 51 per cent more than those who weren’t. It was so incentivising that, when the study ended, 61 per cent of subjects said they would pay to have gym-only access to the audiobooks.
How to embrace anticipation
To build anticipation for the group vacations she leads, Pierce sends clients detailed packing lists a month in advance. “I get equally as excited about the clothes I’m going to wear on the trip as I do about the trip itself,” she says.
But the promise of a new shirt works just as well for things you are not so excited about.
“Let’s say you’ve got a work presentation you’re nervous about,” she says. “If you’ve also got a new outfit that you can’t wait to wear, you’re going to look forward to it more.”

Focus on experiences

Several studies have also suggested that we get more happiness from anticipating experiential purchases than material goods. Ramping up anticipation is an important trick of the trade for Lydia Fenet, a charity auctioneer. If it’s dinner with a celebrity, for example, she will envision all the ways that dinner could turn out. Maybe you and the celebrity become buddies. Maybe they become a godparent to your kid.
"We get more happiness from anticipating experiential purchases than material goods"
“And right as I’m about to hammer down the gavel and sell the lot,” says Fenet, “I’ll turn to the audience and say, ‘So they’ll be dining with their new best friend, George Clooney, and you’ll be sitting at home eating pizza.’”
Dinner with Clooney aside, you can still maximise anticipation before an experience, such as a date. Choose an activity that is meaningful to you or a place you want to show the other person, says Erika Kaplan, vice president of membership for the match-making service Three Day Rule. “Then you’re looking forward to two things: the date itself but also introducing the other person to your world and seeing how they react,” she explains.

Remember that anxiety and anticipation can coexist

The flip side of positive anticipation is anticipatory anxiety—and the fascinating thing, Waugh says, is that they often happen together. 
How to embrace anticipation
“Anxiety and excitement are sister emotions,” he says. “Think about when you’re getting married or you’re having your first kid. It’s a jumble of both.”
But it is detrimental only “when you just focus on the anxiety part and neglect the excitement part,” he adds. The key is acknowledging the happy, positive aspect of what you are doing along with the nervous feelings. Waugh says that research suggests “when you reappraise anxious things as exciting, it actually makes you feel better about them.”

Create something new

If parties are something you look forward to, don’t wait for a holiday to celebrate—just invent an occasion. Throw a birthday party for the dog, or host a breakfast for all the kids on your street.
Whether it is a party or a bribe or a nightly list, anticipation can be a powerful tool in manipulating our emotions. When TV writer Anna Beth Chao tries to look forward to something she is dreading, such as the four-day drive she just made from Los Angeles to her home in New Orleans, she uses this trick:
“I basically tell myself a little story about what might happen,” she says. “If you frame it within, ‘Well, what if it’s an adventure?’ it’s easier to get excited about it.”
The New York Times (June 7, 2022), Copyright © 2022 by The New York Times Company
Illustrations by Alexei Vella
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