Your brain wants to anticipate good times

Dana Smith, from Elemental, tells us about her experience during the pandemic.

‘My fiancé and I started planning our wedding last weekend. It has to be small, outdoors, and masked. It feels a little crazy to think about throwing a party while the pandemic is embarking on its third wave, and we’ll undoubtedly have to change our plans at many points along the way, but after postponing for 10 months I figured it was time to at least start thinking about it. Plus, I really, really wanted — nay, needed — something to look forward to.

It turns out anticipating future fun events is a powerful mood booster, and a lack of things to look forward to is likely contributing to our national state of melancholy.

  • Psychological research suggests that your brain evolved to prioritize future events so that you could appropriately prepare for them and increase your odds of survival. If humans weren’t forward-looking, our ancestors wouldn’t have made it through cold winters, food shortages, or potential enemy attacks. But the future isn’t always negative, and you have neural circuitry that anticipates positive events, too.
  • Looking forward to good things in the future is a key element of well-being. One study showed that the more positive events a person anticipates, the brighter their mood is. Actively planning for the future, even the logistical aspects of it, was also linked to greater optimism about the coming months and years. Notably, people who are depressed anticipate fewer positive events than non-depressed people, while people who are anxious expect more negative things will occur.
  • Other research has demonstrated that anticipating a reward, even a simple one like reading a funny comic, is enough to increase people’s positive emotions before and after a stressful event. The scientists suggest that looking forward to and experiencing a positive event after a negative one can help people recover from their stress faster.
  • In fact, anticipating an event results in an even greater mood boost than reflecting back after it has occurred. For example, people frequently report that planning a vacation or holiday is more rewarding than recalling it afterward.
  • A paper published this summer revealed a positive anticipation circuit in the brain involving three key regions: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which encodes reward value; the midbrain, which is involved in feelings of motivation and is rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine; and the hippocampus, which is important for creating a memory of an event.
  • In a statement put out by the university, the lead author on the study, cognitive neuroscientist Kiyohito Iigaya, said, “Anticipation can probably drive us to prepare better for actual reward consumption so that we can get the most out of it. It’s also healthy — good for our mental health — to have something to look forward to, especially in a challenging situation like now. The reward is not physically here yet, but the brain somehow manages to create it in our mind.”

Nothing big to look forward to? Try microdosing anticipation.

If you have had to cancel your trip to Hawaii (or your wedding), that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to live for — you just have to come up with smaller events to look forward to.

Inject life with small, short-term sources of happy anticipation. For example, you could plan a cocktail-hour call with a good friend or map out a new hike for the coming weekend.

“You can still anticipate positive events, but you may have to scale it back — microdose it, if you will,” [psychologist Christian Waugh] says. “Instead of thinking big or way in the future, think smaller and closer in time.”

Or you could start making a list of all the fun things you’re going to do in 2024. Even if it’s a long way off, that just means you have more time to look forward to it.’

[Edited from the article first published in Elemental, by senior writer Dana Smith}