Illustration: Keiran Blakey

The Nuance

It’s Time to Learn How to Microdose Anticipation

You can still anticipate positive events during the pandemic, but you may have to scale it back

Describing human beings, the 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson pointed out that “the anticipation of change” is one of the greatest sources of human happiness. But once an anticipated change has occurred, he wrote, “the next wish is to change again.”

Johnson’s words capture two important aspects of human psychology. First, that much of life’s joy is wrapped up in expectation — in looking forward to a new adventure, a new enterprise, a new something. But as soon as that new something comes along — or even as it’s happening — people often turn their thoughts ahead to the next hoped-for pleasure or novelty.

The Covid-19 pandemic is making manifest the wisdom of Johnson’s observations. When life is stripped of anticipatory joy — when people can no longer make plans with confidence or look forward to vacations, weddings, or other happy events — they tend to struggle emotionally and psychologically.

“Having things to look forward to is a major coping strategy. It helps us recover and adapt to stressors.”

“From my own clinical experience, people right now are experiencing a great sense of loss,” says Gary Small, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA. “The things we anticipate reflect our sense of self and who we are and on who we are going to be in the future.”

Small compares the current situation to one in which two people have called off a wedding engagement. “It’s not just an immediate sense of loss, but the loss of things they’d looked forward to or hoped for,” he says.

The anticipating brain

The brain’s ability to look ahead is something that separates human beings from most animals. “It’s really our frontal lobe that helps us anticipate and make decisions, and that certainly is a higher-level function,” Small explains.

He contrasts this with the emotional region of the brain — the “more primitive” lower brain — which at times can grapple with and overpower the deliberative brain. “You can see this now in terms of the coronavirus crises,” he says. “Some people are taking care of their immediate needs rather than thinking ahead — they’re going to the beach or hanging out in groups despite the risks. So, the frontal lobe is not prevailing.”

There’s some evidence that certain forms of anticipation can reduce stress and anxiety. A 2015 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that anticipating a positive event bolsters a person’s mood and helps them endure a stressful task or event. “Having things to look forward to is a major coping strategy,” says Christian Waugh, PhD, co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. “It helps us recover and adapt to stressors.”

How does anticipation do this? A simple explanation, Waugh says, is that the human brain can really only focus on a couple things at a time. “So, when you have positive anticipatory things in your mind, there’s just less room for negative thoughts,” he says. “There’s an overall better profile of positive to negative.”

He says anticipation can also be energizing and motivating. “It promotes approach thinking, so the feeling that you’re going toward something you want or desire, as opposed to going away from something you fear, which gives a sense of well-being.” He points out that looking forward to something — a vacation, for example — provides a source of happiness that people can draw on when grappling with stress.

“You can still anticipate positive events, but you may have to scale it back — microdose it, if you will.”

Research backs him up on this. One 2010 study from the Netherlands found that people experience a significant bump in happiness during the weeks leading up to a vacation.

“Anticipation is very important — it underlies things like optimism and hope,” Waugh says. “And positive anticipation is something that goes away when people are depressed.”

Unfortunately, it can also go away when people feel uncertain about the future. And these days, uncertainty is rampant.

Not only does uncertainty undercut helpful forms of anticipation, but it also disrupts a person’s ability to confidently plan ahead, which is another coping mechanism for stress. “A lot of what we do as humans is planning around our goals — so I need to do X, Y, and Z to get where I want to go,” he says. “Uncertainty says you can’t do that — you can’t plan for X, Y, and Z — and that’s really tough for people.”

The dark side of anticipation

All this makes the current Covid-19 situation immensely challenging. But Waugh points out that anticipation “is not purely a good thing.” The same parts of the human mind that allow people to imagine the future and anticipate happy events are also the ones that allow for worrying and “catastrophizing,” or anticipating hardships and worst-case scenarios. While these can be helpful in moderate doses, too much worrying can promote anxiety and despair.

A brain that is always looking ahead can also struggle to take pleasure in the moment, he says. For example, when that longed-for vacation finally arrives, some may find they can’t take their thoughts off all the work they’ll have when they get back to the office or how they might better organize their next vacation. Even absent Covid-19, life is full of uncertainty. A brain that is too wrapped up in future plans and pleasures is not necessarily a resilient or happy brain.

Mindfulness training is one way to cope with all these challenges. “Mindfulness can be really helpful when it comes to taking you out of these forward-thinking mindsets,” says Waugh, who has posted YouTube videos about coping with the psychological challenges of Covid-19. “If you find that the thoughts you’re having about the future are not productive, then anchoring yourself in the moment can be a good thing.” There’s also evidence that mindfulness training can promote the kind of measured, thoughtful appraisals that calm outsize emotions and reduce anxiety.

Another helpful remedy during Covid-19, Waugh says, is 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,” he says. “Instead of thinking big or way in the future, think smaller and closer in time.” This may take some practice. But already, plenty of people have probably started to adjust their minds — and their anticipations — to suit the timeframes dictated by Covid-19.

One final piece of advice: Consider how you spend your time and how much of that time is occupied by the news. Much of the contemporary (and oft-maligned) 24/7 news cycle is stuffed with opinion and prognostication — usually about all the worst things that are happening or that could happen. Waugh says he would never discourage people from staying up to date on important information. But, again, he says that the brain can really only occupy itself with a couple thoughts at a time. If your brain is spending hours and hours each day engaged with news that is overwhelmingly distressing and forward-gazing, the balance of positive to negative thoughts is going to tip in the wrong direction.

“Imagining a better future can help you stay on the hopeful side, rather than on the side of despair,” Waugh says. “It’s necessary to choose the right things to focus on.”

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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