Leveraging Anticipatory Joy

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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.

Next Week: Changing Poison Into Medicine, Redux

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  • I totally agree; I get more pleasure from planning a vacation that’s months away than taking a last-minute trip because both planning and looking forward to the trip itself are anticipatory experiences that make the actual trip that much more fun. Sometimes, it IS the little things that mean the most.

  • Very true. Persistent low moods and worry and uncertainty about the future can seriously damage one’s health and increases cardiovascular risk.

  • Perhaps we can anticipate that each of our future present moments will hold something meaningful… now that is an idea that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning and face the day!

  • I recall a therapist years ago suggesting that I might be more productive in finishing an academic book I was working on if instead of admonishing myself for being unproductive I anticipated the pleasures of a clean desk, uncluttered mind, relieved pressure, a finished book. That helped a lot, moving from negativity to anticipatory joy.

  • Great post! Life is always better when there is something to look forward to! A special vacation definitely comes to mind, but even a simple weekend outing can provide the same comfort and anticipation. I think this might answer why some people are inherently happier than others. Maybe they unconciously know how to use this looking forward to their advantage.

    There are so many small, daily things that keep me going!

  • This is a very fortuitous post as just this last Saturday I found myself in a very black mood, brought on by a variety of financial concerns, which ultimately cancelled dinner plans for that evening. This was something I was somewhat looking forward to, having spent most of the previous weeks cooped up (I work from home) and desiring adult conversation (I have 4 small children). I tend to be a very moody person in general, and these moods prompt my intellect to probe for possible physiological causes (Do I need to eat? Am I bored? Do I need to stand up and move around? Is something bothering me to create this mood, or is this mood creating something that otherwise wouldn’t bother me?) It was, after all, caused by my own convictions about reducing our food bill by eating out less often. What I found was that I was looking forward to sitting down to a good meal, something better than frozen pizzas or chicken nuggets, especially with other adults, more than I realized. Once I found a way to re-engage those arrangements, my mood lifted, and even though we had to ultimately cancel them again due to a strange new restaurant policy forbidding parties of larger than 8, my new mood wasn’t phased and we had a perfectly fine, and cheaper, meal at Denny’s with just my wife and the kids. I’m definitely going to remember this point when evaluating my moods in the future to try and keep them lifted. It explains why I’m always the most uplifted on payday when I have more opportunities to do things than during the week leading up to it when the bills have been paid and the bank account is empty.

    On Professor Coyne’s recommendation, I’m also about midway through your book, and I have to say this is the first book in a long while that I’ve ever stopped myself from starting the next chapter so that I could spend a day absorbing what I had just read. Considering that my recent reading list has comprised the likes of Einstein, Sagan, Shermer, Hawking, Gibbons, Nelson, and Dawkins, I hope you take that as a compliment. I had buried your book at the bottom of my pile because it was, on the face of it, the least interesting, and I’m finding now that, while this may not have been the first book I wanted to read, it is certainly the book that I need to read. I look forward to the chapters to come.

    Justin: I completely understand the sentiment you expressed in your first paragraph. I have only one child but hunger for and look forward to adult conversation the same way you do. And thank you for such a wonderful compliment about my book. To be mentioned in the same list as those luminaries is among the highest of compliments I could hope for. I hope you find the last half of the book even more helpful than the first half.


  • Anticipatory pleasure is *awesome*.


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  • Thank you for this one.