Why you should always have something to look forward to

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“Although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but [Winnie the Pooh] didn’t know what it was called.”

-A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh[1]

The word Winnie the Pooh was looking for as he munched on honey with his pal Tigger was anticipation.

This feeling of looking forward to a pleasant experience—whether it’s a delicious treat, an exciting vacation, or a personal milestone—is a powerful emotion. It can also give us a sense of purpose, a reason to carry on[2].

In fact, research has found that anticipating an experience is often better than the experience itself[3-5].

That’s because when we imagine future events, we are able to create a mental simulation with all of the enjoyable bits, and none of the pains. In our daydreams, there are no flight delays, no disappointing discoveries, and no arguments with Uncle Dan to spoil the fun.

A perfect example is vacationing: Most people think of the preparation as a necessary hassle, the vacation itself as the main point, and the time afterward as a period for reminiscing and feeling unusually relaxed.

But this is completely backward.

People are happiest in the lead-up to a vacation, not during the vacation itself[4]. They are also happier when anticipating a vacation that’s coming up, compared to reminiscing about it afterward[5]. (As for the belief that you will return from a vacation refreshed? Don’t count on it[4].)

This isn’t to bemoan the fact that reality often fails to live up to expectations, or to advise against taking vacations. After all, vacations themselves are still enjoyable—and you need to take them if you want to be able to look forward to them.

What the research suggests, though, is that we should value anticipation more highly, and do more to capitalize on the enjoyment it brings.

Most obviously, you can make sure that your future is well-stocked with things worth looking forward to. In the realm of vacation, you might consider taking multiple smaller trips instead of one big vacation, to give you more things to anticipate throughout the year[6].

You can also do more to savor the future events that you already have in store. This can be as simple as getting in the habit of regularly asking yourself, “What am I looking forward to?” Or, it can mean planning these events earlier to extend the anticipation, immersing yourself in the imagined future, or sharing with others how excited you are about the upcoming events.

References

1. Milne, A. (1926). Winnie the Pooh. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

2. Shimizu, M., & Pelham, B. W. (2008). Postponing a date with the grim reaper: ceremonial events and mortality. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30, 36-45.

3. Gilbert, D. (2009). Stumbling on happiness. Vintage Canada.

4. Nawijn, J., Marchand, M.A., Veenhoven, R., & Vingerhoets, A.J. (2010). Vacationers happier, but most not happier after a holiday. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 5, 35-47.

5. Van Boven, L., Ashworth, L. (2007) Looking forward, looking back: Anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 136, 289-300.

6. Nawijn, J. (2011). Happiness through vacationing: just a temporary boost or long-term benefits? Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 651-665.