Waiting may not be anyone’s favorite activity, but science and psychology both agree that if you can turn it into positive anticipation—an expectation of something good to come—anticipation can be beneficial for your brain, your emotions, and even your physical health for many reasons, and it’s a skill worth learning.
The human brain is especially evolved to anticipate and calculate an action, particularly the prefrontal cortex. Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a Manhattan psychiatrist, suggests that learning to anticipate is a sign of maturity. “This portion of our brain enables us to make sound decisions that enhance our being in the world and keep us from acting in compulsive and destructive ways,” he says. The ability to anticipate is one of the things that separate the human brain from the reptile brain, for example. “[The prefrontal cortex] is poorly developed in young children, adolescents and teens,” he tells Rewire Me. “That’s why your teenager makes such poor decisions that have the capacity to destroy his or her future.”
To reap the benefits of anticipation, you have to learn how to delay gratification. “There are physical and emotional benefits to delaying gratification,” says Hokemeyer. “Because our brain is essentially a big muscle that needs to be exercised to perform at its optimal capacity, delaying gratification provides our brains with the pushups and sit-ups needed to keep it running like a gold medal gymnast.”
In fact, when you anticipate something you want, even if you don’t know what the outcome will be, you activate your brain’s reward center, specifically a little structure in the prefrontal cortex known as the nucleus accumbens. When you’re looking forward to something, your brain releases feel-good hormones along your brain’s reward system, the “mesolimbic dopamine pathway,” which helps to reinforce behaviors that are beneficial.
Turn anxiety into anticipation
Of course, the other side of anticipation is anxiety. Some people may rush past moments of positive anticipation and miss out on some of these pleasurable benefits because fear or anxiety takes over. “Anticipation alerts all of the pleasure centers in the body and says wake up, which can create happy feelings,” says Stacy Kaiser, Editor-at-Large of Live Happy magazine, and a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “A lot of times people are afraid to anticipate because they don’t want to be disappointed, but I think they’re missing out on learning and moments of joy.”
“Anxiety is a negative emotional state,” says Hokemeyer. “It causes stress in our physical body that in turn compromises our immune systems. Anticipation in contrast, is based on a sense of personal agency and control. In a state of anticipation we enjoy a sense of mastery over our lives.”
Kaiser believes that anticipation can also teach you patience, and reveal what your expectations are, and how well you deal with fear of not getting what you want. “One of the skills we can work on for ourselves is to notice, when anticipating, ‘Am I unfocused, unable to get work done?’ We need to work on comforting ourselves and lowering our anxiety.” She recommends that people allow themselves to linger in positive anticipation and not rush to project disappointment or failure to reap its full benefits.
Research has shown that positive anticipation is one of the reasons why social media works so well. When you post to Facebook or Instagram, for instance, as you wait to see if people will like or share your post, you activate that reward system in your brain. Indeed, a study published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found “Earning positive social feedback in the form of an approvingly smiling face leads to activation of brain areas also active during the anticipation of monetary rewards, specifically the dorsal and ventral striatum.”
Another way that anticipation is beneficial is its ability to generate hopeful feelings. “Anticipation of positive events makes uncertainty more manageable by giving us hope, a sense of control, and an implicit knowing that positive emotion will happen in the future,” says Greg Kushnick, a New York psychologist, and founder of Techealthiest.
All experts agree that there is more benefit than harm to anticipating good things, even if they don’t come to pass.