The joy of anticipation

Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good, and in this month's Mind Life Lab Experiment, it's all about looking forward


The joy of anticipation

Think how happy you feel when you’re looking forward to something, whether it’s a holiday, a film or even the gripping last chapter of a book. Research has shown that anticipating something can be a powerful, positive emotion that can help us live happier lives. Reporting in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology, US researchers Van Boven and Ashworth (2007) wanted to test a theory that anticipation arouses more intense emotion than retrospection. In other words, would people enjoy looking forward to things much more than looking back on them afterwards?

The researchers put study participants through five experiments in which they were asked to contemplate future or past emotional events, including a public holiday and an imagined ski vacation. They then measured their emotional reactions to both anticipating these events and looking back on them and discovered people have more intense feelings before events actually happen. For example, participants got more excited about a ski holiday in the future than they did about a ski holiday in the past, both hypothetical and real.

The theory We tend to experience more intense emotions about future events than those in the past. This is because, on the whole, we have an expectation that future events will make us feel more emotional than ones that have passed. On top of this, we are also more likely to talk about how excited we are about something we have planned compared to something we have already done. Although nostalgia can be part of a happy life (Argyle, 2002; and Chang, 2004), Van Boven and Ashworth think there is much to be said for anticipating events, to the extent that it can help improve people’s wellbeing. ‘Our research suggests that the enjoyment people glean from anticipation might also be an important component of life satisfaction.’ Whether it’s choosing a new novel to read or planning a holiday to an exotic destination, we feel really good when we say, ‘Think about the enjoyment we’re going to have’ compared to, ‘Think about how much fun we had last time’.

Try this This month, the experiment is to look forward to one of the following three things – or all, if you can manage it. In each case, visualise the experience in advance and connect with how excited you are at the prospect of each activity.

  • Make time each day to read a book you’re enjoying, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
  • Choose a TV programme or film you’re excited about watching each week.
  • Plan a meal night that you’ll enjoy, whether it’s home cooking, a takeaway or eating out at a restaurant. The important thing is the planning. Focus on what you’re looking forward to – think about the twists and turns in the book’s plot, the visual excitement of the show or movie, and the taste and maybe engaging company during the meal. Stick to this plan for one month.

Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at 

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