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October 08, 2020

The power of anticipation: Improve your well-being by looking forward

Three tips for identifying life experiences that spark enthusiasm

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Anticipation health benefits Simon Migaj/

Research has shown that vacationers have a significantly higher pre-trip happiness score than people who are staying home. The reason cited for the difference? Anticipation.

Does the prospect of a pleasurable event get you charged up? Do you feel a stronger sense of purpose with a number of activities on the horizon? If so, you are not alone.

One of the most powerful and commonly used tools in the toolbox of healthy behavior is anticipation. Whether it's an upcoming event, a trip, time with the family, an important meeting or just some time alone, the activities you anticipate can be a major motivator for sustaining your health and well-being.

Big or small, routine or extraordinary, experts agree that activities – and the buildup to them – can have positive effects.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information says anticipating the future confers great benefits to human well-being and mental health. According to the Harvard Medical School, when you’re fully engaged in activities, you will enjoy them more and be less preoccupied by concerns about the past and the future. And life coach Talane Miedaner advises people to have something to look forward to every day, adding that simple things are often the most rewarding, bringing the greatest joy and happiness.

Ligaments of a healthy lifestyle

In previous articles, I have cited numerous factors that contribute to a healthy lifestyle: relationships, sleep, rituals, sex and, of course, diet and exercise. Anticipation is a motivator that connects them together like ligaments to the human skeleton. 

With a focus on individual events and milestones, anticipation brings happiness at the prospect of a pleasurable experience. Whether a good night’s sleep or an evening out with a loved one, the common denominator is the anticipation and the contribution between the individual experience and your larger goals of health and happiness. The more positive anticipation you experience, the more inspiration and purpose that contributes to positive behaviors.

The science of anticipation

According to the Coleman Institute, scientists are now also calling dopamine "the anticipation molecule" because the hormone is released in large amounts when we anticipate a pleasurable experience. A large amount of dopamine is released both when we think about a pleasurable experience and when there is a realistic opportunity that we will be able to have the pleasurable experience – true anticipation.

The key is to steer your behavior, and the ultimate pleasure, toward healthy pursuits and away from addictive or unhealthy practices. Bottom line, when directed properly, the body’s chemistry can be an asset and leveraged to enhance your well-being.  

In a widely-referenced study published a decade ago in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, researchers from the Netherlands measured pre- and post-vacation happiness. While they concluded that post-trip happiness generally did not differ between vacationers and non-vacationers, they found vacationers had a significantly higher pre-trip happiness score. They suggested that anticipation played an important role in explaining the observed differences.

Your anticipation strategy

It's safe to say that almost everyone has experienced anticipation. Whether it's looking forward to Friday, a vacation, your child’s college graduation, paying off the mortgage, or just a quiet dinner with your spouse, it’s a feeling we all know well.

The pertinent question is how much of your anticipation portfolio is the unconscious product of your routine versus a determined effort to lead a robust and fulfilling life?

Do you delegate your social life to a spouse? Is your career on auto-pilot? Do you seize the opportunity for fun when it comes along, but are largely disengaged from any serious consideration of lifestyle enhancements? Do you want to create a platform that fills your life with more purpose and enthusiasm?

If any of these questions hit home, here are three basic steps to building your own anticipation strategy:

1. Inventory Your Opportunities: Think of life as having multiple categories of activity or events:

• Life-cycle installments, like birthdays, graduations and weddings

• Annual rituals that include vacations, business engagements or civic celebrations

• Milestone events such as a major trip, a big promotion or perhaps a new love interest

• Day-to-day routines with particular meaning, like your morning coffee before others wake up, a daily workout or the newspaper.

Whatever falls within your scope, take some time to consider the breadth of micro and macro experiences that give your pleasure and, by definition, would fall within your anticipation portfolio. Such a conscious review is sure to yield a revealing and extensive list of opportunities.

2. Create Your Strategy: With your new stockpile of ideas in hand, get out your calendar and plot your course. Be sure to include members of your loving constituency in the process. Finding high-quality anticipation is a team sport. 

Day-to-day activities are a good start, followed by the predetermined dates associated with birthdays and date-fixed events. Get creative with perhaps weekly or monthly oriented treats that boost your relationships or contribute to other macro goals. 

When you’ve got a year’s worth of entries, step back and re-examine for continuity and a logical flow. Fill any gaps and commit to the others involved to follow-through on implementation.

3. Execute: Your plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on without execution. Yes, an occasional deferral or cancelation is OK. Stuff happens. Overall, you want to have a decent batting average when it comes to the percentage of planned events that actually happen. 

When the events unfold, grade your level of pleasure and the quality. If an idea turns out to be a dud, drop it and look for something new. That’s the fun of experimentation which adds a dynamic element to the process. Remember, the effort is designed to create anticipation, so events need to meet this test.

Drudgery, tediousness and boredom are plentiful. A robust lifestyle with events and milestones that generate a continual level of anticipation can go a long way to minimizing their presence in your life. Between your own body chemistry and the social contributions flowing from your initiatives, you can capture the ingredients you’ll need to maintain the motivation for leading a healthy lifestyle. It’s a winning combination.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website 

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