“You need to let the little things that ordinarily would bore you suddenly thrill you” – Andy Warhol
It’s great to have things to look forward to isn’t it… that mixture of excitement and anticipation, the eager ‘how-many-sleeps?’ count down, the little squeezes of happiness as the time approaches and the rising agitation that it takes “SO long” to arrive (I’m thinking Christmas and children!).
It’s probably fair to say that many of us were looking forward to lots of things this year that haven’t actually happened, and there’s something about the steady but cumulative cancelling that has been tough. I know my daughter, who had a number of big events on her calendar, struggled each time a significant ‘could have,’ ‘should have,’ ‘would have,’ date passed by, and I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people about the special thing they’ve missed, and how much they had been looking forward to it.
One image from the news this week that has stayed with me, was of a lovely lady with twinkly eyes speaking about her 80th birthday. She told how all the celebrations she had hoped to have with friends and family were now cancelled because of the re-tightening of lockdown rules. It was clear to see how much she had been looking forward to it, and although this bright and beautiful person was being very smily and philosophical about it, I couldn’t help but feel sad at the wistfulness in her voice.
This moment seems to me to capture what so many people have faced over the last six months as events and activities were postponed or cancelled, each with a measure of loss, sadness, and a wistful thought, as the dates came and went.
We are, of course, lucky to have good things to look forward to (there are many people who don’t) so why is losing them so difficult?
A unique aspect of being human is to have a purpose in life, something to aim at, and something to look forward to. The essential part of all these, the part that makes us feel good, is the anticipation. Anticipation is not expectation or fact, it is simply our imaginings of how an event might unfold, and crucially, what we will feel when it happens. Science shows that anticipating a future event triggers similar feelings to doing the event itself.
This is our good friend dopamine at work again. When we anticipate a reward, this chemical messenger is released and zips between the neurons in our brain, so when we think about how exciting a certain event is going to be and how happy it will make us, our dopamine levels rise, triggering a pleasurable hit just through anticipation.
My husband told me a story which perfectly illustrates this. When he was a child, he liked to enter lots of different competitions. In anticipation of winning, he would clear a space on his shelves for whatever prize was on offer! What wonderful optimism, or perhaps, over confidence, but the really interesting part is that just the act of clearing the space made him feel positive, excited and happy whether he won the competition or not. Unbeknown to him at the time, this was his dopamine in full flow.
Scientists have also shown that anticipation can even give us a stronger emotional response than the event itself, and can enhance it when it happens. Recently my son wanted to order a newly released Lego set. At first it was sold out, and when he could eventually order it, there was a four week wait. He was disappointed, but as the days went by he grew more excited, and it seemed almost more delicious when it arrived than if he had been able to order it straight off and have it the next day.
Looking forward to things has been shown to improve our wellbeing and life satisfaction, and having a sense of anticipation can actually help in difficult times – think how often you’ve got through a tough week by looking forward to something at the weekend.
The problem we are having is that fewer events and activities are possible, and as a friend of mine remarked last week, “It’s the lack of things to look forward to that makes this situation feel so relentless!”. It also means that when we do look forward to something, it holds more weight and seems more significant, which means that losing it feel tougher
But is a life full of events a full life? I think that for many people, including myself, the current situation has already made us re-evaluate and appreciate the little things in life that we previously took for granted. As this quote I recently came across says, “If you’re only looking forward to the big things, then you’re going to go through life very disappointed.” We all need something to look forward to, to make the future feel positive, but it doesn’t have to be big.
I think what I’m looking forward to most, is an end to not having much to look forward to, but in the meantime I will focus on appreciating the things I can.
What about you?
And there’s something else too…
A small caveat… For all I have said about anticipation and the benefits of planning positively for the future, let’s not wish our lives away… remember to make the most of now too.
On the first Monday my son was back at school after lockdown I asked him what he was looking forward to. “Seeing my friend on Friday evening,” he replied, and he wasn’t joking. I knew he wasn’t feeling settled about being back at school, but what a lot of wasted days that would have been! We talked some more and found there were lots of enjoyable things he could do each day to make the most of his time instead of just moping around waiting for Friday and in doing so, he had a much better week than he originally thought.
So look forward joyfully, but also live in the present, and take each day as it comes.
Oh and in case you were wondering, my husband never did win a prize!
Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee
I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far.
To get in contact with Deborah, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us