“An intense anticipation itself transforms possibility into reality;
our desires often being but precursors of the things
which we are capable of performing.”
Did you know that anticipating something can be a way to boost your happiness level? Yep, it's true! Apparently the act of anticipating a pleasant event can make you feel happier. Studies, such as this one referenced in The New York TImes, have shown that simply anticipating a good event—such as a vacation—can boost happiness for weeks. This is likely because, as Tali Sharot writes in her book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, "anticipation of a pleasurable event seems to activate neural systems that are also engaged while actually experiencing the enjoyable event." While what we feel might not be exactly the same, Sharot's own studies have shown that the pleasure of anticipation can come pretty darn close to the actual experience.
This information, of course, raises the questions: How do you anticipate an event and still stay in the present? Is it even possible to do so? While I truly believe staying in the present is an essential aspect of living a positive life, it's hard to deny that anticipating a future happy has it's benefits. There's a hopefulness, an excitement, to imagining something wonderful in the future that can, in fact, make the present even more joyful.
Personally, I'm experiencing this anticipation right now. For my upcoming 30th birthday, my boyfriend just booked us a trip to check out Oheka Castle, one of the grand Long Island estates that inspired The Great Gatsby (my recent obsession, for those who have been following the site and Instagram these past few weeks!). I couldn't be more excited to take in the luxury and beauty that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous character's home. An entire summer must pass, however, before I'll set foot on the Oheka grounds—which means months of anticipation, something I'm to which I'm actually looking forward.
I'm not much for waiting—patience is not my greatest virtue—but after reading up on anticipation and giving it some thought, I've started to realize how valuable it really is in terms of creating more happiness. Yes, I could easily drive up to Oheka Castle next week and check it out, but what fun would that be? Would it be less enjoyable without the weeks of waiting? Odd as it is to say, I think it's the anticipation of it that makes it all the more exciting.
Even though focusing on the future goes against the idea of being present, there's some merit in allowing yourself to daydream about future (pleasant!) events, to look forward to something wonderful coming your way. The trick is to know how to make the most of anticipation, to use it in a way that enhances the present. Here are some tips:
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF ANTICIPATION
1. Picture the event in vivid detail. In Sharot's book, she argues that one way to get the most out of anticipating an event is to picture it in vivid detail. The more details about the event you can imagine, the more joy you'll experience from your anticipation. I couldn't agree more. The more you imagine the event, the more you'll look forward to it—and the more your brain will get those cues that you're actually taking part in it before it starts.
2. Expect good things to happen. It can be hard not to anticipate what could go wrong when you're looking forward to something (what if the concert gets canceled? what if it rains on my wedding day? what if I get sick on vacation?), but if you want to make the most of anticipation, you have to focus on all of the things that could go right. When you imagine in vivid detail what's coming up, imagine the good things. Picture everything going just the way you want it to.
3. Save the best for (almost) last. If an event is really, really far away, don't start focusing on it so much. Wait until it gets closer to imagine all of the amazingness that's coming your way. Sometimes when it's too far away, it can be disheartening to imagine what's to come. It's alright to think about it, but save the really good anticipation—like all of those vivid details—for when the even is just around the corner. This way it won't take over too much of the present.
4. Don't detract from the now. It's a tricky balance—looking forward to the future while staying present—but the key is to make sure that your anticipation isn't detracting from the present. If you find yourself not doing certain things or holding back in certain ways because you're focused on what's to come, it's time to redirect your attention to the now. While it's great to have excited expectations, they won't truly increase your happiness if they stand in the way of the present moment.
"Sometimes expecting a good thing is more pleasurable than actually experiencing it," Sharot writes in The Optimism Bias, and I actually can't argue with that. (Just think of the times you've imagined some amazing event only to have the real event leave you feeling a little let down.) Perhaps its expecting too much from something (I'm talking to you, New Year's Eve!) that takes away from it. Or perhaps it's just that anticipation can be so fulfilling that an actual experience isn't as good as expecting that experience. Either way, I think Sharot's words serve as a good reminder that: (1) anticipation can be pretty awesome and (2) anticipation, if overdone, can take away from the event itself. As with most things, moderation in expectation is key. While it's fun to look forward to the future, don't let it spoil the present.