In her 1971 hit song Anticipation, Carly Simon sang, “We can never know about the days to come, But we think about them anyway,” Right now, a lot of folks are thinking about what the next several months will bring. We’re wondering about what living in post-election America will be like, as well as how the holidays will play out in this pandemic year. Anticipation is all about looking forward and it is something we’re constantly doing.
Anticipation affects us in a number of ways. It even plays a major part in people’s enjoyment of music. David Huron from Ohio State University describes in his book titled, “Sweet Anticipation,” how anticipation is used by composers to evoke emotional states in listeners. For example, when the music fails to convey what is expected, disappointment and even annoyance might be induced. Delaying an anticipated sound typically builds suspense and tension, while delivering sounds that are anticipated, may produce feelings of closure and satisfaction. Unique and totally unanticipated sounds may elicit feelings of surprise and perhaps even a sense of wonder. New York musicologist Leonard Meyer called this intentional use of anticipation in musical composition the “choreographing of expectation.”
In everyday situations, British psychiatrist Robin Skynner said that anticipation was one of the “… mature ways of dealing with stress. You reduce the stress of some difficult challenge by anticipating what it will be like and preparing for how you are going to deal with it.”
Anticipation, however, is a two-edged sword. It can express both eagerness for something to occur as well as apprehension. Anticipating positive events increases the brain’s output of the chemical dopamine, which is associated with pleasurable feelings. Research shows that most people anticipate more positive events than negative ones. When anticipation causes dread, it is referred to as anticipatory anxiety. It is a natural response to perceived threats. Although critical for survival, when there is no actual danger, anticipatory anxiety can cause problems and distress.
Such anxiety is usually present when people engage in some sort of performance, especially when others are evaluating them. Some examples of situations when people might experience this type of anxiety include getting interviewed for a job, going on a date, giving a speech, meeting people for the first time, or doing your stand-up routine on open mic night at the comedy club and experiencing flop sweat. Besides such social situations, anticipatory anxiety is also felt when there is an imminent threat of pain or physical harm, such as skydiving, having a medical procedure, or seeing the dentist.
As I write this column I’m scheduled to have my third joint surgery in the morning and my anticipatory anxiety is on the rise. When this event was months away I remember wishing that it would hurry up and take place. Now I’m not so sure. Psychologists also call such situations approach-avoidance conflicts. These conflicts occur when an event is perceived as having aspects, which make it simultaneously both desirable and menacing.
When these two features are roughly equivalent and the event is far off, we are usually eager for the event to take place. When, however, it comes close to the time of the actual event, suddenly the desire to escape or avoid dramatically increases. This duality of feelings may explain why some people smile uncontrollably during periods of anxious anticipation, while others appear to be ill.
The phrase “cold feet” is sometimes used to describe the hesitancy some people show when the time comes for some long-anticipated event to occur. Author Stephen Crane popularized this phrase in his 1896 novel, “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.” The expression is often used in reference to last-minute anxiety about getting married. The phenomena is the central theme of the 1999 Julia Roberts movie, “The Runaway Bride.” The film features Roberts as Maggie Carpenter, who leaves four different grooms at the altar. An actual runaway bride case occurred in Georgia in 2005 when Jennifer Wilbanks vanished after anxiously anticipating her elaborately planned wedding that had over 600 invited guests and 28 beautiful bridesmaids. Her impulsive flight led to a nationwide search and even an investigation of her fiancé, who was suspected of foul play.
Experts have developed a number of strategies to deal with anticipatory anxiety. Among these are: (1) Focus on the positive aspects of impending events; (2) Avoid panic by defining any anxiety manifestations as being normal and harmless; (3) Disrupt anxiety with positive self-talk; (4) Imagine positive-event scenarios and describe them to yourself; and (5) Concentrate on something else such as manipulating a comforting object, or reciting soothing self-affirmations.
My wife Diane says that when you anticipate something that’s anxiety-provoking, there frequently comes a moment of truth when you realize that you have done all you can possibly do to prepare for the event. At that point, you know you just have to follow through and do it and further agonizing over it won’t help. Diane says this is how Yvonne Knight got through many years of Chautauquas at the Howard Steamboat Museum.
Anticipation also plays a major role in what makes us happy. Research consistently shows that people derive more happiness from experiences than from material possessions. This holds true even when people are only anticipating such events. Anticipating new experiences are routinely more exciting and generate less impatience than anticipating gaining a new possession.
A 2010 study found that the anticipation of a vacation typically makes people happier than actually taking the trip. In the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Calvin sends in his breakfast cereal “Proof of Purchase Seals” and eagerly anticipates receiving an official Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs Beanie, with a battery-powered propeller on top. He imagines wearing this beanie and soaring through the skies. He’s disappointed when it finally arrives and doesn’t live up to his expectation. Calvin concludes that wanting is exciting, while having is boring, which turns out to be consistent with the scientific evidence.