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The lost art of waiting: Why anticipation makes us happier

The lost art of waiting: Why anticipation makes us happier

Long gone are the days when we would happily wait weeks or months to receive a letter from loved ones. Epic journeys were once made across the seas, taking months or years.

Nowadays, we zip across the globe in a matter of hours, with a constant drip of in-flight entertainment and snacks to distract us from the process. And we still complain about how long it takes to get to our holiday destination.

Modern humans are characterised by impatience; we want it all, and we want it now.

If you’ve ever groaned at the mere sight of a waiting room or gritted your teeth in rage while stuck in traffic, you’re not alone. Our world is one of instant gratification, where the boredom of waiting in even the shortest of queues prompts us to immediately grab our phones and start scrolling.

Unfortunately, our inability to embrace waiting and delayed gratification may be harmful. Impatience has been linked with poorer health outcomes, faster ageing, and even a greater likelihood of engaging in criminal activity.

Conversely, embracing the joy of waiting for positive events can boost our mood and make it easier to live in the present moment.

Our dwindling ability to enjoy positive anticipation prevents us from deeply immersing ourselves in life’s journey without being fixated on some imaginary ‘end goal.’ Many of us have forgotten how waiting for something good to happen can sometimes be even more enjoyable than the positive event itself.

An obvious example is sitting at a restaurant and seeing the waiter approach with your meal. You sit up straight, smile, or even do a little happy dance in your seat, awaiting the amazing flavours and textures. As soon as you take your first bite, this excitement dwindles, and satisfaction becomes fleeting. When you’re almost done with your meal, it’s gone entirely, and we start to frantically seek our next source of pleasure (dessert, anyone?).

Our inability to embrace waiting is largely a result of the rapid pace of modern life, where technology has automated and ‘optimised’ every part of our daily routine. Productivity and efficiency are everything, leaving little room to savour the sweetness of waiting for something worthwhile.

Social media amplifies our impatience, constantly bombarding us with an influx of images and 12-second videos of people’s perfect morning routine or explanations of how they ‘hack’ their day, their body, or their career to achieve their goals faster. Companies know how impatient we are, exploiting this to sell us products that promise impossible results in tiny timeframes.

With so much stacked against us, how can we learn to slow down, enjoy the experience of anticipation, and embrace the lost art of waiting?

How anticipation makes us happier

Anticipation is a double-edged sword – there is a big difference between waiting for something bad and looking forward to something good.

Dwelling on what may go wrong in the future is usually unhelpful, making you suffer twice for the same event.

Positive anticipation is an important antidote to modern life. It teaches you to relish the excitement of waiting for something good to happen instead of getting frustrated that it hasn’t happened yet.

Impatience is rooted in the idea that you ‘should’ be somewhere else and feeling discontent with where you are here and now.

Embracing the process of waiting is the antithesis of impatience. It’s trusting that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be and enjoying the building anticipation of exciting things to come. Exciting moments like holidays are always over too soon once they start, so why not enjoy every moment leading up to it?

The thrill of waiting, the building excitement, and the speculation of what is to come can often produce more positive emotions than the event itself. One study even found that anticipating positive events is “uniquely able to induce positive emotions both during and after stress and that this boost subserves improved coping and recovery”.

Simon A. Rego, the chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has written extensively on how anticipation can impact our mood. He said that “imagining good things ahead of us makes us feel better in the current moment. It can increase motivation, optimism, and patience and decrease irritability”.

Positive anticipation helps us cope with difficult times, leaving less room for negative thoughts and motivating us to hold on and wait for happier times ahead. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel that so many of us need.

This research is promising, especially as our resilience has been tested in unique and complex ways in the wake of the pandemic.

When we think about the things we look forward to most, we often jump to big events like overseas trips, weddings, or birthdays. But can we use the power of positive anticipation to improve our mood in our everyday lives?

If we can slow down and learn to feel gratitude and happiness while waiting for the small positive moments in our everyday lives, the answer is a resounding yes.

The lost art of waiting: Why anticipation makes us happier

How to harness the power of waiting

  1. Celebrate and anticipate the little things. Whether it’s your morning coffee, a phone call with a friend, or simply a new episode of your favourite show, look for moments to relish in anticipation of pleasurable experiences.
  2. Be mindful in the present moment. Even when you are looking forward to something, avoid the trap of thinking that everything will be better when it happens. Embrace the excitement of knowing that a positive event is just over the horizon. Notice the physical sensations of anticipation. Is your heart rate elevated? Can you feel the energy vibrating in your hands and feet? Are you finding it hard to sit still because you’re so elated?
  3. Play an active role in creating things to look forward to. Plan your social calendar strategically, if you can, so that positive events follow challenging or stressful ones. Book in a girl’s night out after submitting an important deadline, or ask a friend to go for a walk after spending time with a challenging family member. The plans don’t have to be big (see tip 1). It can be as simple as including ‘cuddle my dog’ on your to-do list. Committing to taking care of your future self is a great way to stay grounded amid life’s challenges.
  4. Acknowledge that excitement and nervousness can co-exist. Often, exciting things go hand in hand with potential risks or things that could go wrong. Accept these possibilities and trust that you can handle whatever comes at you. Excitement and nervousness are not polar opposites – they are both essentially just a burst of adrenaline and energy – and only our thoughts interpret them as good or bad. Try not to fight any challenging emotions or thoughts, but rather notice them, accept and validate them, and then move on and continue enjoying the excitement of waiting.
  5. Embrace daydreaming. If you don’t have any real events to look forward to, spark your creativity by imagining things that excite or interest you. Let your mind wander, and visualise yourself partaking in the activities in as much detail as possible. Once you find something that excites you, turn your daydream into a reality by making a plan. Book yourself in for that dance class, start researching a holiday destination you’ve always dreamed of, or reach out to that colleague you think would be a blast to hang out with outside of work.

After years of being unable to look forward to anything besides the next COVID-19 press conference, it might feel strange to start locking in plans and allowing yourself to get excited.

The constant changing of restrictions or cancelling big plans has traumatised many of us into assuming and planning for the worst.

While it’s always smart to practise caution, it may be the perfect time to start rewiring our brains to enjoy waiting again and feel safe in looking forward to things.

After everything we’ve endured, we’ve earned the right to enjoy our lives and look forward to every positive moment, big or small.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.