Your Brain Needs a Party
Anticipating fun events is a key element of well-being
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
My fiancé and I started planning our wedding last weekend. (Don’t worry, it’s many months away and will 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.