Looking Forward to the Future

I was sitting at work, bored. My patient had missed their physiotherapy session, giving me a free 30 minutes before my next appointment.

I thoroughly disliked the job, so it was a welcome break.

I’d already handed in my resignation and was enduring my notice period with stoic resolve.

Fortunately, only a few weeks remained before I embarked on the biggest adventure of my life.


I was 24 at the time and I’d organised my first extended travelling trip.

The destination? South America.

While most young backpackers were hitting the well-worn route through South-East Asia, attending full moon parties and ‘finding themselves’ in Goa, South America presented an altogether more mysterious challenge.

From crisp Patagonian air up to the Bolivian salt flats, into steamy Ecuadorian jungles and onto beautiful Colombian beaches, untethered adventure beckoned.

I was also fascinated by Spanish, ready to go full native with my immersion in the language.

Can you recall a comparable instance in your own life?

A time you’ve been looking forward to the future with trembling anticipation?

If you’ve ever wondered at such moving emotions, it turns out there’s a reason why…

Anticipation science

It turns out that the psychology of anticipation, in part, explains our future-minded orientation.

“Anticipation for [the] future confers great benefits to human well-being and mental health.”

In a study of the phenomenon using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging, 40 participants were scanned while they were performing an emotion anticipation task, in which they were instructed to anticipate the positive or neutral events,

“The results showed that bilateral medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) were activated during anticipation for positive events relative to neutral events, and the enhanced brain activation in MPFC was associated with higher level of well-being. The findings suggest a neural mechanism by which the anticipation process to future desired events correlates to human well-being, which provide a future-oriented view on the neural sources of well-being.”

Part of this might be anticipation’s effect as a stress reliever, with research showing,

“that anticipating a positive event is uniquely able to induce positive emotions both during and after stress, and that this boost subserves improved coping and recovery.”

Different expectations

Crucially, the kind of anticipation matters.

In a series of experiments conducted by Gilovich and his colleagues, an important distinction between the anticipation of different purchases was uncovered.

While most research has focused on downstream hedonic consequences and the increased pleasure derived from experiential purchases over material purchases after the fact, Gilovich et al focused on the pre-purchase anticipation, finding that,

“Four studies demonstrate that people derive more happiness from the anticipation of experiential purchases and that waiting for an experience tends to be more pleasurable and exciting than waiting to receive a material good.”

According to the author, this has important societal and behavioural implications,

“Our research is also important to society because it suggests that overall well-being can be advanced by providing an infrastructure that affords experiences — such as parks, trails, beaches — as much as it does material consumption.”

Such findings are ironic, given our normal preference for material acquisition over experiential events,

“We often spend our money on stuff, rather than on experiences, because we believe that experiences are fleeting. A week in the Caribbean may be glorious, but then it’s gone. The high-end couch or TV will last a long time. But this reasoning is fallacious. It may be true in a strictly material sense, but psychologically, experiences are more joyful, more memorable—and now we know, more exciting to look forward to.”

Looking forward to the future

In summary:

  • Looking forward to the future can provide tangible emotional benefits
  • Use regular anticipatory events as mood boosters and stressbusters
  • Leverage the research and optimise for experiences over material purchases

The balance

There are benefits to looking forward to the future but as ever, the argument is nuanced, especially from an experiential perspective.

As any mindfulness practitioner will tell you, the aim (if you can call it that), is to stay present.

Just as looking forward to the future can convey emotional benefits, so too, there’s much joy to be found in the present moment, after we train ourselves into such recognition.

Therefore, bias yourself towards trust and positive future feelings, but equally, don’t spend so long in anticipation mode that when new moments finally arrive, you miss them altogether.

Fortunately, my South American trip lived up to all the psychological hype.

When it did finally arrive, in a merging of an eagerly anticipated future and mindful attention to the present, it was a transformative, life-altering experience.

But that’s a story for another time…