Having to confront an indeterminate outcome that might be bad seems to cause more anxiety than having to confront an outcome known to be bad.
In one study, patients requiring colostomies (a rerouting of the passage of stool from the rectum to an opening in the abdomen) that were potentially reversible were actually found to be less happy six months after their operation than patients whose colostomies were permanent. Why? Because uncertainty prevented them from adapting to the change, keeping them focused on and attached to what they still stood to lose. Uncertainty about the future has almost unequaled power to lower our life-condition in the present.
The converse of this, however, also seems to be true: anticipating something pleasant seems to have almost unequaled power to make our present glow. Anticipatory joy is often greater than the joy brought to us by experiencing the very things we anticipate. This is often because what we expect an experience to be like is often not what it’s like and the difference between our expectations and reality mutes our experiential joy. But it’s also because anticipating a pleasure is itself intrinsically pleasurable.
When I’ve looked for the difference between between my happy days and unhappy days, I’ve noticed that the former are frequently filled with thoughts about something I look forward to, while the latter are practically empty of them. While having something to look forward to is obviously not the sole determinant of my mood, it clearly exerts a powerful influence. Powerful enough that I’ve learned, when my life-condition falls low and I don’t know why, to ask myself first if the reason is because of a distinct absence of anticipatory pleasure.
In my case, at least, a lack of anticipatory pleasure almost explains a depressed mood in the absence of obvious reasons for it (that is, adverse events). Anticipatory pleasure is so important to my sense of well-being, in fact, that I now plan my life in such a way that I almost always have something to look forward to. For me, this can be finishing an interesting blog post, working on my next book, going to a movie or a play with my wife, playing with my son, reading a good book, getting errands done, or even organizing my desk. I’ve learned the activity needn’t be large or significant or meaningful—just something I look forward to, even a little bit.
Unfortunately, it’s often hard to find such things, especially if something looms large in our lives that’s actually depressing us. But our brains are so constituted that we’re able to feel more than one thing at a time—even diametrically opposed feelings, like happiness and sadness. So even when we’re depressed, placing something in front of ourselves that we look forward to can bring anticipatory pleasure even if we’re feeling depressed about something else (though if we’re depressed to the point of being nonfunctional, of course, anticipatory pleasure is no substitute for professional help).
It takes constant work, constant planning, to have something consistently before us that we look forward to, but it’s worth the investment. I’ve been amazed at how much of a boost to my life-condition even a small anticipatory pleasure can bring, even when I’m feeling anxious, sad, or depressed.
Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World. He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.
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