At the close of each year, I reflect on what I could have done better over the preceding 12 months and how I might apply this insight to the year ahead. For 2023 the answer was glaringly obvious: I had lost the art of anticipation. The year was crammed so full of nation-wide book launches, conferences, Amsterdam and the Kokoda track, that I had no time to get excited about what was coming up next. I barely had time to unpack one suitcase before packing another. And in the process, I missed out on the pleasure of counting down the days, getting fired up about what I would learn, and anticipating the fun I would have.
Having something to look forward to enhances our mental and physical health, increases our capacity to manage stress and helps us recover from setbacks. Functional MRI brain scans show that when people think about positive future events, a specific region of the brain (known as the medial prefrontal cortex — MPFC) is activated, and this correlates with higher levels of wellbeing.
Contemplating a positive future experience lifts our mood in the present moment. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be a big overseas trip or major event. We can boost our happiness by anticipating a visit from an old friend or getting enthusiastic about trying a new recipe — whatever appeals to you. One of the simplest ways to feel better on a daily basis is to write down one thing you’re excited about the next day. Do this before going to bed and think about it again when you wake up. Your ‘one thing’ can include taking the first step towards a new goal, making progress on an existing goal, meeting up with someone, sending a thank you card and anticipating the recipient’s joy, organising a dinner party, joining a laughter yoga class, seeing a movie, going to a concert, listening to an audiobook or planning your next holiday. Give yourself permission to get excited about the so-called ‘little things’ because they soon add up to be big mood- and wellbeing-boosters. Building up a collection of mini-pleasures tops up our feel-good neurotransmitters and reduces depression and anxiety.
If you already have big things lined up that you’re looking forward to, enjoy the experience multiple times over before it even happens by reflecting on all its pleasurable details. Even if the experience doesn’t turn out exactly as planned, you’ve still reaped the mental and physical benefits of anticipation. Whenever you feel down, bring to mind your upcoming adventure (big or small). Watch how your mood immediately improves. Likewise, if you’re unwell or going through a stressful time, spend a few minutes thinking about things you’re looking forward to, even if they’re unrelated to your current situation. The power of anticipation is that it changes our brain and body chemistry in a way that enhances our ability to cope with whatever we’re facing in the moment.
Research also reveals that we derive more joy from the anticipation of experiences than from the anticipation of receiving material goods. This is no surprise: the best things in life are not things. I can remember the months of excitement that preceded my first overseas holiday with my parents when I was 10 years old. I spent countless hours imagining what it would feel like to fly in an aeroplane, what clothes I would wear, what sights we would see and who we might meet. I was on a high for a long time before we even boarded the plane. It was better than anticipating the gifts that might be under the Christmas tree that year. I think I’ll take a leaf out of that 10 year old’s book.
Please share this HEB with the busiest person you know.