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

Markham Heid
Published in
6 min readMay 7, 2020

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…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.