We all know the feeling of looking forward to something — planning a trip, getting tickets for a concert or arranging a get together with family or friends.
The trouble is many of these activities have gone by the wayside during our pandemic. And, with those plans, the excitement and anticipation has evaporated as well.
Anticipating future fun events is a powerful mood booster, and a lack of things to look forward to is likely contributing to a national state of melancholy, according to Dana G. Smith, Ph.D., a former brain scientist and senior staff writer at Elemental (elemental.medium.com/), which publishes science-backed health and wellness information.
Psychological research studies cited by Dr. Smith present the following conclusions:
- Looking forward to good things is a key element of well-being.
- The more positive events a person anticipates, the brighter their mood.
- Actively planning for the future — even the logistical aspects — is linked to greater optimism about the coming months and years.
- Those who are depressed anticipate fewer positive events than non-depressed people.
- Anticipating a reward — even a small one — increases positive emotions before and after a stressful event.
- Planning a vacation is more rewarding than recalling it afterward.
Revising your scope
Back in the days when we had a lot of events going on, I was known to caution my friends (and myself) about living too much in the future — and not enjoying the now. The last seven months have shifted a lot of perspectives, though. As always, it’s good to strike a balance.
This pandemic has actually resulted in many of us getting more creative. Dr. Smith cites an Elemental article by writer and editor Markham Heid that illustrates how to insert some of the positive anticipation the pandemic has robbed us of back into our lives.
“Inject life with small, short-term sources of happy anticipation,” says Heid. Psychologist Christian Waugh advises that we can still anticipate positive events, but we may have to scale them back — microdose them. “Instead of thinking big — or way into the future — think smaller and closer in time.”
Rearrange some furniture to create new energy in your home. Plan out a new hike. Check out an online class in something you’ve never tried. Experiment with cooking or baking. A friend of mine mentioned signing up for “Beginning Ukulele.” And others are learning Spanish and Italian.
Even the action of planning creates a little party in your brain because it releases dopamine, a pleasure hormone. Dopamine is stimulated when we strive toward a goal. It motivates us to take action toward the goal so we can experience the pleasure of the reward.
The idea is to get the same kind of mood enhancement you’ve gotten in the past, even if it’s on a smaller scale. The rewards are still there!
Living with uncertainty
My friend and fellow writer Derlys Gutierrez relays an experience on her blog, “No Words Unsaid,” that speaks to the point of our current uncertainty. Gutierrez is an attorney and shared that in a recent work meeting one of her colleagues said things would be easier if we could just have some certainty — because we’d be able to plan.
“The conversation reminded me of the illusion we have that there is any certainty in anything in life,” Gutierrez reflects. “We walk through metal detectors in courthouses and in airports because these will keep us safe. We bolt doors and have cameras that tell us who is at the door.
“We sign into buildings, show identification and proceed to the elevator because a security guard looked at us and said we looked safe,” Gutierrez continued. “It’s a make- believe illusion that keeps us feeling good.”
The pandemic has not stripped us of certainty, Gutierrez explains. It has merely wiped out the illusion of uncertainty, and it’s a game our minds play with us because it’s unnerving not to know what’s going to happen next.
“The reality is that with each blink of an eye, things change,” says Gutierrez. The cells in our body replace themselves. “That’s the certainty — that everything changes.”
Back to my earlier point on being cautious about living too much in the future, Gutierrez shares that we have no certainties, no guarantees. “We have now. We can plan, we can dream, we can prepare. But we have this present to live. Let’s not waste it pining for a certainty that doesn’t exist.”
Which reminds me of a recent quote I read from my friend and fellow writer Tom Kesting (email@example.com). “Give up, give in — or give it all you’ve got. Each of us must make that choice.”
We could all use things to look forward to these days. So, give your brain that party it needs!