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The Happy Wait

Looking forward to something can be almost as good as experiencing it
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Holly Burns   |   Published 15.06.22, 03:42 AM

A lle Pierce knows how to plan a vacation. A few months out, she “goes on a crazy Google spree,” constructing a spreadsheet of all the things she wants to do and see. She scrutinises the menus of restaurants she is planning to visit. She uses a picture of the destination as her phone’s lock screen image and downloads a countdown app.

“What’s so exciting about a trip is the anticipation before it,” said 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.

“Imagining good things ahead of us makes us feel better in the current moment,” said Simon A. Rego, chief psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, US, who has written extensively on the effect anticipation can have on mood. “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.

Little Things

Anticipating a smattering of small, delightful experiences can be as enjoyable as looking forward to one big event, said Carrie L. Wyland, a social psychologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, US.

“At the end of every day, write down one thing you’re excited for tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe it’s a new book or getting doughnuts or a package you’re expecting.”

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, said Christian E. Waugh, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, US, who studies anticipation.

“Plus, with the nearer stuff, there’s more of a sense it’s going to happen for sure,” he said.

Future self

Ever walk through a house for sale and immediately picture yourself serving an impressive cheese plate on the beautiful deck, maybe dressed in some sort of fabulous kaftan?

When Torrie Lloyd-Masters, co-founder of the staging business Home At Last, is preparing a house for sale, “we’re showing people what their life could be like if they lived here,” she said. “We’re essentially saying, ‘This could be your future.’”

It works because it is compelling to imagine yourself as the kind of person who always has a bouquet of tulips on the kitchen table.

Research has shown that feeling as if you are on a path to your “future self” can have a positive effect on your well-being by snapping you out of short-term thinking. Thinking of the future may help you prioritise your health and maybe even act more ethically.

Gentle Bribe

Anyone who has taken a child for a flu shot and then ice cream knows the power of building anticipation for a thing you don’t want to do by pairing it with one you do. In a 2013 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.

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 said.

But the promise of a new shirt works just as well for things you are not jazzed about.

Make Something Up

If parties are something you look forward to, said Megan White, an event planner in Savannah, Georgia, US, don’t wait for a holiday to celebrate — just invent one. Throw a birthday party for the dog or host a pancake breakfast for the kids on your street. “Think about ways to make occasions even when there aren’t any,” she said.

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 writes an episode for You on Netflix, “we always try to end with something where you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to see what happens next’,” she said.

When she gets stuck, she just tells herself a story about the characters and sees where it goes. It is a tactic she repurposes in her personal life to try to look forward to something she is dreading.

“I basically tell myself a little story about what might happen,” she said. “If you frame it within ‘Well, what if it’s an adventure?,’ it’s easier to get excited about it.

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