Health

Science Says You Need to Plan Some Things to Look Forward To

With the current state of the world, it's essential, not selfish or silly, to give yourself a positive, anticipatory boost—here’s why.
December 29, 2020, 12:00pm
Figure with a pencil, surrounded by calendars
Illustration by Minet Kim
howtostayin
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a summer full of park socializing and outdoor dining, winter has settled in, bringing endless hours of darkness, record-high COVID hospitalizations and deaths, and a renewed sense of dread. Rising case counts, colder weather, and tightening lockdown measures have made the relative flexibility of the summer a thing of the past… which may have also resulted in your pausing on making plans for the future. After all, why bother setting another Zoom happy hour when the novelty has long since worn off?

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But with January—and the post-holiday crash—just around the corner, and perhaps the most isolating days of the pandemic ahead of us, it’s never been more important to give yourself things to look forward to, no matter how small. A 2015 study found that having something positive to look forward to reduces stress and boosts mood. With the current state of the world, it's essential, not selfish or silly, to give yourself a positive, anticipatory boost—here’s why.

Thinking about the future can make you feel better in the present.

Given the uncertainty of the pandemic, making plans for the future is virtually impossible. What will the world look like in the summer when you want to organize a road trip with friends outside your household? Anything you can successfully plan and look forward to (even something as small as the takeout you’re going to order for dinner tonight) can make you feel hopeful that “there can be something positive in the future and the expectation that something positive will happen,” Diggles said.

Humans are extremely future-oriented, Christian Waugh, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, told VICE. From making weekend plans to plotting a five-year career path, humans have the unique ability to set goals and envision how to get there and how it’ll feel when they do. 

Think about the last vacation you planned. It’s likely you pictured yourself lounging on the beach or weaving through winding European streets. It’s also likely this daydreaming gave you a jolt of excitement. A 2010 study explored this exact phenomenon, showing that people with an upcoming vacation were happier than non-travelers, suggesting anticipatory glee fueled their present happiness. 

Actively imagining, and looking forward to, your best life can actually make you more optimistic, studies show. This mental image can make you just as happy as the experience itself, marriage and family therapist Kimberly Diggles told VICE. “We know anticipating something positive actually helps to maintain dopamine levels in your brain,” she said. “So just the very idea of anticipating something good can physically change your brain chemistry so you feel happy.”

Positive anticipation is a powerful motivator.

This hope and optimism you get from imagining a fulfilling future event, in turn, makes you more motivated to work toward this goal or experience—regardless if it’s a socially distanced chat with a friend or a massive post-pandemic party. “When we are optimistic, what that's telling us is we’re on the right path to accomplishing goals we care about,” Waugh said. “It gives us a sense of meaning, it gives us a sense of purpose—and a sense of purpose is, by itself, motivating.”

People are driven by reward, too, Taisha Caldwell-Harvey, a psychologist and founder of the Black Girl Doctor, told VICE. “There's a really cheesy reference, but if you dangle a carrot in front of someone, they're going to move a little faster,” she said. By keeping that metaphorical carrot ahead of yourself in the form of fulfilling activities, the next stretch of the pandemic won’t have to feel as unbearable.

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Of course, anxiety and stress can be motivators as well. For instance, the fear of catching and spreading Covid-19 is motivation to stay home and social distance. However, knowing there’s a positive event on the horizon keeps life moving forward in a more meaningful, and less stressful, way, Waugh said. “We know that working toward things that you’re excited about, that you feel positive about, that are meaningful to you,” he said, “are much more psychologically satisfying and motivating than moving away from things.”

Planning for the future can help combat stress in the present.

Uncertainty is stressful and upsetting, according to research, but planning for the future gives you a sense of control, Shevaun Neupert, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University told VICE. In her recent research, Neupert found that people who planned for the future, a process called proactive coping, were less stressed when it came to the pandemic. “There is a clear benefit that we know about during this pandemic: being able to look ahead and make future plans can help reduce the stress that we're all feeling right now,” she said. This can be as simple as stocking up on pantry staples so you don’t have to worry about crowded trips to the grocery store. 

In Waugh’s studies, he found that when people had something positive to look forward to following a stressful event, like giving a public speech, they rebounded from that stress quicker than those who didn’t have something positive to anticipate. Even though we might not know when the pandemic will end, having a future experience to look forward to, like an extravagant wedding, can boost our mood during this stressful time.

Be purposeful about your happiness.

“You need to be intentional about chasing joy,” Caldwell-Harvey said. By peppering your days and months with happiness-inducing activities you can look forward to, you can stave off depression and be more resilient against stress, she said. But you should also be purposeful in making plans before feelings of hopelessness and despair set in, since depression can lead to hopelessness and a lack of interest in pleasurable activities. The goal here is to maintain agency over what you can with concrete actions in a time when so much is out of your control rather than ruminating over what the end of the pandemic will look like

To prioritize happiness is to prioritize survival, Caldwell-Harvey said, especially now. “A lot of the work I do is targeted toward the Black community and I think about racial trauma and how critical it is that we are resilient to stressors and it’s so easy to not prioritize joy,” she said. “But joy is the thing that protects you and makes you able to bounce back and persist through challenges and hard times.”

For right now, be realistic in your anticipation.

Congregating in the same room as dozens of your closest friends may not be an option for the foreseeable future, so it’s important to remain accurate in your planning, Caldwell-Harvey said. You don’t want to schedule a lavish overseas vacation for June, only to postpone it because, unsurprisingly, the pandemic is still raging. By making a plan based on data—like case numbers, travel advisories, and lockdown orders—”you are increasing your odds things will happen the way you planned it, because you made a plan that’s based on facts,” Caldwell-Harvey said.

You can still plan certain details of post-pandemic events while remaining mindful of reality, Neupert said. For example, you can imagine the outfit you’ll wear the first time you go out dancing with your friends again. By picturing these tangible details, you’re acknowledging this seemingly far off plan will materialize in due time.

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But there are ways you can infuse anticipation into here and now. Start small, Waugh said, by giving yourself something to look forward to tomorrow, like mulled wine and movie night with your roommate. Then build up to giving yourself things to look forward to weekly (a catchup call with a friend) and monthly (trying out a new recipe, or the release of a new album). You could exchange letters with family and friends, Neupert suggested: Having mail to look forward to every week is both low-cost and low-risk. Other manageable things to anticipate: Weekly takeout night, a call with a grandparent, a short road trip to a new hiking trail.

Crucially, don’t compare your pandemic fun to the Before Times. A cold picnic in the park for a friend’s birthday will undeniably fall short of their karaoke bash last year—and it’s unfair to compare the two events. Going to the spa with friends might’ve been your pre-pandemic idea of a great time, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get excited about DIY facials over FaceTime with your friends. The important thing is to keep making plans using what’s available right now.

“There’s still things to look forward to,” Diggles said. “We have to look for them in a little different ways than we used to.”

Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.