Monday 5 August 2013

Wait for it...

My Dad often quips, "I don't know why anybody bothers to go on holiday when everybody knows that all the research and the planning and the looking forward to it is by far the best bit".

And I think he has a point.

Happiness, having fun, pleasure is all very wonderful stuff, but often, that bit that comes before the wonderful bit, is just as and on occasion, even more wonderfuller.

Even Winnie the Pooh knew this:

“Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.” 

Well, we do know what it's called. We're talking, of course, about anticipation.

And whether the anticipation equals or surpasses the event itself, there's no denying that anticipation is a really super, important, special bit of the whole happiness mix. Since we know that anticipation of a negative event can be so powerful, in the form of worry and anxiety, it stands to reason that the same can be said of positive anticipation.

Gretchen Rubin, author of 'The Happiness Project', defines the four stages of happiness (in the same way Kublher-Ross defined the stages of grief) as anticipate, savour, express, reflect.

There are many reasons why this anticipate stage is so important.

Firstly, an important thing to know about happy people is not necessarily that they have more happiness, but that they both notice it and make more of it. One of the best ways to get more happy is to a) notice it more and b) eek it out and amplify it as much as possible.

So, looking forward to, or anticipating something is an excellent way of squeezing more happiness out of something.  Every time you think about what's coming up you experience a little tingle of excitement and all these little tingles contribute to our overall sense of wellbeing. This works in the same way as talking over an event after it has happened, reliving memories, looking back over old photographs of good times and recounting what we're grateful for.  They're all about savouring, and savouring is key

BUT, with one added benefit. Anticipation has one over on reflection, and it's called imagination.

Our imagination is a powerful thing. I can prove it. Imagine your perfect holiday. Picture it, put yourself there. What can you hear? What can you see? Smell? How does it feel?

Notice I didn't say "imagine you're lying on a pure white beach with a beautiful turquoise sea lapping at your feet". That's because everybody's ideal is different and your imagination is far more powerful than any words I could write. So before you've even been on that holiday your imagination is conjuring up your most ideal perfect version of it for you to look forward to.

It doesn't even have to be something as exciting as a holiday. Imagine you have a lemon. Imagine cutting into the lemon and then squeezing it and dripping some of the juice onto your tongue.  If you do imagine that, you'll probably notice your mouth filing up with saliva. That's because just imagining and thinking about something, anticipating it, lights up the same bits of your brain as actually doing it.

Anticipation is so powerful a tool, in fact, that it often forms part of therapy, especially with those people who have no particular routine and nothing to speak of to look forward to. The recommendation would be to get a diary and go through it putting in some little things to look forward to. It doesn't matter what as long as it's something they will enjoy. Going for a walk, having a bath, reading a good book. 

For the same reason it can be a useful tool when we've got something a bit grotty coming up that we're not looking forward to. One strategy I learnt on an NLP course a few years ago for dealing with the dread of, say, a big presentation was to focus on the moment straight after the presentation and the relief/high you'd feel when it was over rather than the fear/panic you'd feel just before going on. But a positive psychology course I went on run by The Happiness Consultancy went one step further and suggested 'planting little treats' to come after a yukky time to help you 'see beyond the wall' of that yukky thing coming up.

In fact, we use anticipation strategies all the time without really realising we're doing it. Advent calendars are a great example and a much better lesson in happiness with their little by little building up to the big day approach, than Christmas morning itself with its big frenzy of present opening all in one go.  Unless of course the presents are tickets to an event later in the year you can look forward to.  TV cliff hangers work in the same way, as does delayed gratification which, generally speaking, has been linked with a whole host of positive outcomes.

So, on the most part, anticipation is a jolly good thing and something we can all take advantage of to maximise the happy.

But I do feel I should just mention a few caveats.

1. Firstly, we are known to a be a bit rubbish at judging how happy something is going to make us feel. That, coupled with our vivid imaginations and all this anticipating can sometimes leave us a little disappointed with the event itself.  But given we also adapt pretty quickly, I'm sure we'll get over it.

2. Adaptation is also a bit of a theme when it comes to anticipation. There is another cycle whereby we anticipate a big change coming, it arrives, we adapt to it and it becomes normal so then we anticipate the next big thing, adapt, normalise, anticipate etc. In other words, a vicious circle where we never really reach 'happy' because we keep anticipating the next big thing instead of just being happy with where we are now.

3. While we're so busy anticipating and looking forward to whatever it is we've got planned tomorrow, next week or whatever, we could be in danger of missing out on today...commonly known as 'wishing your life away'

So, anticipation is an excellent tool, used wisely and mindfully. Here are three simple strategies we can all use
to make the most of it to eek out the most happiness:
1. Plan things to look forward to in your diary, even silly little things and flick through it often
2. Plant little treats to come after stuff you're not looking forward to
3. Chat over things you're looking forward to in the same way you might reminisce with friends and family

And the good news? You've got 26 more days of #HappinessHappens Month to look forward to and get practising :)

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