Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 8 2023

Desire and Anticipation Heighten Life Experience

One of my favorite memories studying psychology is when I was told about an experiment where the experimenters told people to imagine they had won something (e.g., tickets to a concert, a kiss from their favorite celebrity) and then asked them when they would like to receive it. It's such a fascinating thought experiment because everyone thinks that humans are all about instant gratification—especially in today's society. But, much to their surprise, it turned out that most people picked a week or so out from today vs. having it right now or having it a year from now. In other words, people intentionally wanted to push out an amazing life experience. What the hell was going on?

Well, it turns out that—contrary to intuitive belief because of modern conveniences like social media and 3-hour Amazon delivery—people do want to schedule or plan things to look forward to. There is fun in the anticipation of an amazing experience and the desire and excitement that swells within you. It's why people love Holidays, planned parties and vacations, and teaser trailers. When it comes to big events that will be very significant and memorable to them, they actually want time to think about it and enjoy the feelings that come before the event.

That's why when people are asked in this study, they want at least a week to dream every day about how amazing that kiss from their celebrity crush would be or what it will be like to see their favorite band perform live and in person. If they just had the celebrity walk up out of nowhere, kiss them, and walk away, it would be quite the story of a lifetime but the one regret would be that they didn't have time to bask in the moment—and, for the self-conscious out there—prepare themselves to make it a special, magical moment vs. something that just happened to them that's a fun story to tell at parties later. In fact, it makes the story better as well, as "X celebrity kissed me out of nowhere and walked away" is short and strangely unsatisfying. It's interesting how that works: both the event and the story pack much less punch without a build-up even if it's something amazing like that.

More research has found plenty of interesting findings about anticipation. For example, one research study found that experiential purchases tend to provide more excitement and anticipation beforehand and enduring happiness afterward than material purchases. This is a combination of the anticipation finding and the "experiences over material things" finding that keeps showing up in psychology studies' results. So people actually want to want, to anticipate, and to let the excitement build in their lives.

So, how does this apply to your life in general? Well, you can take the obvious route of simply planning more cool events in your life and practicing that anticipation for everything from scheduling fun outings with friends to romantic evenings with your significant other. But you probably got that already from the point above, so let's focus on another contrarian insight from the research.

The point that fascinates me personally is the fact that most philosophies that focus on stress management, peace and well-being, and living a life with less negativity focus on how to avoid attachment and longing (yes, I'm looking at you, Buddhism and Stoicism). Combining that with the point above that most people assume that people want instant gratification, and you have a strange have-it-or-don't belief system in the average person that you either get something immediate for the dopamine hit or need to practice detachment and letting go instead of thinking about things you cannot (immediately) get. Now, there is value in a lesser version of the two points: you should focus on things you can control that get you moving toward what you want in life and disconnect from negative feelings regarding things you cannot control in life. But there is a third insight between those two that is important to add: have a few things that you can look forward to, which thread the needle between stuff you can get now and stuff you should forget about.

This is much more impactful than it sounds because its value is three-fold:

In my opinion, that's a huge "lightbulb" moment that I don't see mentioned too often in self-help and life advice content. At least, I've never seen, "Plan an event a few weeks out and get really excited about it" as top life advice. But look at its potential to enrich your life.

In short, just because the world is kind of pulling us in the instant gratification direction on one side and the detach-from-all-outcomes direction on the other doesn't mean that you can't find a lot of value in the middle: plan for a bright future full of wonderful life experiences and love every minute leading up to it. You'll love it before, you'll love it during, and you'll have nostalgia for it for the rest of your life. And that contributes to a life that feels lived to the fullest.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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