The Psychological Benefits Of Having Things To Look Forward To

The coronavirus pandemic has canceled the plans and events we were excited about. Here's how to build positive anticipation when the future is so uncertain.

At the beginning of March, many of us had vacations, weddings, family visits, concerts, sporting events, graduations, birthday parties, baby showers and other celebrations glimmering on the horizon. Just a couple of weeks later, all of those big plans — and even the smaller ones dotting our calendars, like dinners with friends, workout classes or haircuts — were shelved indefinitely.

If you’ve been experiencing disappointment or a sense of grief around the loss of future plans, know that it’s a totally normal reaction to the present circumstances. You may feel silly being sad about your graduation ceremony getting canceled or your wedding being postponed when others are dealing with unemployment, severe health issues or the death of a loved one — but you shouldn’t.

“Given the truly devastating situations so many people are finding themselves in, we can feel guilty for mourning these smaller losses, which just piles on even more negative feelings,” Jaime Kurtz — associate professor of psychology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia — told HuffPost.

Those more extreme hardships don’t make what you’re feeling any less valid. Anticipation of positive future events acts as a powerful force in our lives. Think, for example, of how you felt as a kid the night before your birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah or other holiday.

“You were excited, anxious and filled with all the positive feelings of anticipation,” said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California. “Your anticipation was exciting and gave your life an exciting lift that was even more exciting than the presents themselves.”

Anticipation isn’t always positive, though. It can be unnerving, too, when the possibilities looming on the horizon seem daunting, as is the case now in the middle of the pandemic.

“When it comes to potentially negative futures — which many of us can’t stop envisioning — that uncertainty isn’t exciting,” Kurtz said. “All those what-ifs can be extremely scary and stressful.”

“You’re imagining a new potential future — one with good times and challenges overcome instead of a bleak, powerless tomorrow.”

- Ryan Howes, psychologist

Research suggests that living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness can increase happiness. “However, during particularly stressful moments in time, like our current pandemic, it can be more beneficial to have something to look forward to,” said Atlanta therapist LeNaya Smith Crawford.

As psychotherapist Lucy Beresford told HuffPost UK recently: “Staying in ‘the now’ is a really good tool, just not all the time. Otherwise you miss out on the joys of reflection and anticipation.”

The experts we spoke to said there are many benefits of having things to look forward to — even if we have to work a little harder to create those experiences for ourselves right now.

It makes you feel optimistic about the future.

“Anxiety is typically how our bodies respond to horrible things that may happen in the future. Maybe I’ll get fired! Maybe I’ll go bankrupt! Maybe I’ll be humiliated!” Howes said. “Humans are uniquely wired to imagine all types of potential scenarios for the future, and those who are more prone to anxiety tend to focus on the potential negative outcomes.”

By having something fun coming down the pipeline, you’re effectively challenging those pessimistic beliefs about what lies ahead.

“You’re imagining a new potential future — one with good times and challenges overcome instead of a bleak, powerless tomorrow,” Howes said.

Your summer vacation plans may have been scrapped, but there are still ways to build some excitement and anticipation into quarantine life.
jayk7 via Getty Images
Your summer vacation plans may have been scrapped, but there are still ways to build some excitement and anticipation into quarantine life.

These days, you may have to come up with smaller treats to look forward to in the immediate future. Instead of the concert you were hoping to attend later this summer, think about the tie-dye kit that’s getting delivered tomorrow.

“It may not be as exciting as a wedding or an international vacation,” Kurtz said. “But plan a weekly hike, bike ride, picnic, or get take-out from a favorite local restaurant. Try to enjoy it for what is rather than comparing it to what you’re missing.”

And instead of focusing on everything you’re unable to do for the time being, “practice gratitude to shift your focus to what you do have,“ Kurtz said.

It’s a pleasant distraction.

Daydreaming about all the potential of these happy future experiences can fill you with excitement.

“It’s fun to have all of those possible futures we spin in our minds,” Kurtz said.

Start envisioning what you want to do once the restrictions are lifted — perhaps a year or two from now. Once the pandemic ends (and it will end, even if it doesn’t feel like it will sometimes), think about how you want your life to look.

“Creating a vision board for the things you would like to do when this is over is a powerful motivator,” Smith Crawford said. “What vacation do you want to take, what family gathering do you want to throw, how do you want to celebrate your birthday?”

Let yourself fantasize about the positive experiences that await you, Howes said.

“Use that energy to endure the slog of everyday life in the present,” he added.

It motivates you to keep going when you want to give up.

“Anticipation implies a future reward, and rewards are powerful motivators,” Smith Crawford said.

Knowing that something good is coming your way pushes you to accomplish those tasks you may not necessarily want to do. Maybe you’re a high school student who’s tired of distance learning, but you keep working hard to get good grades so you can attend the college of your dreams one day.

“Anticipation also creates discipline,” Smith Crawford said. “It helps with delayed gratification. This teaches us that if we can be patient, a greater experience — or reward — is upon us.”

Imagining a brighter future also adds us meaning to our lives, Howes said.

“We can see the toil and struggle of today paying off with meaningful outcomes later,” he said. “If you believe today’s toil will be worth it in the end, it makes it much more tolerable to endure the hard times.”

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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