Have you ever loved the anticipation more than the actual thing? Going out with that person you liked for ages, visiting that place you were excited about, watching that film you couldn’t wait to come out…. And then when it actually happened, it didn’t live up to your expectation. If you did, you might feel a little disappointed, and almost cheated, by your own brain.
But here’s the good news… All this time spent thinking about it wasn’t wasted. All that anticipation has been doing wonders for your mental health.
What are Happy Chemicals?
Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins are chemicals that are released when we do things we enjoy, and are responsible for the feeling of pleasure. Dopamine, often called the ‘happy hormone’, is a type of neurotransmitter that sends messages through the nervous system. It is already released when the event is being anticipated in your mind. Neurology Professor Robert Sapolsky explains that “dopamine levels increase as soon as we start anticipating a reward.”
So, thinking of nice food, shopping, a hot date, or any activity that makes you happy, will all trigger a ‘dopamine rush’.
The Power of Anticipation
Under many circumstances, your brain responds the same to what is real and what is imagined. Test this out now. Close your eyes and think of the happiest day of your life, really picture everything about it. Where you are, what you can see around you, what you are doing, how you are feeling, what you can hear, smell, touch. Take the time to re-live this moment in your mind, like a day dream. I bet you are smiling, and I bet you are feeling good. This trip in your mind activated your nervous system and triggered the release of dopamine. Now, imagine a big hairy spider in your bed, or something distressing for you. Your feeling will be completely different. It triggered the ‘fight or flight’ (stress) response’. Yet, despite the two scenarios happening inside your mind, you are still in the same place, doing the same thing (reading this article).
So, when you anticipate a happy event, you will release dopamine in the same way as when you are actually experiencing it. Possibly even more, if your hot date doesn’t live up to your high hopes, or if the film you couldn’t wait to watch turns out to be a flop. Every run up to Christmas, I watch my children (and me!) anticipate the big day with joy and wonder. And that extraordinary feeling grows exponentially as we get closer and closer. Each time they think of it or talk about it, their bucket of dopamine gets fuller and fuller. I love that time of the year, because it generates a never-ending source of happiness.
The opposite is also true, negative thoughts that rehearse catastrophic scenarios trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response in the brain, releasing stress chemicals exactly as if you were in actual danger. This is called anxiety.
Dopamine on Tap!
Dopamine is part of the brain reward system, which means that when it likes something, it will seek more of it. (This is how addiction works). If thinking of Christmas makes you happy, you will want to think of it again and again because your brain will expect that ‘feel good’ reward every time you think of it. This is a good thing. Your brain can continue producing happiness.
The term ‘looking forward’ describes the process perfectly. You utilise your most powerful tool, imagination, to visualise positively what is coming. Simply play the scenarios in your mind, day dream about it. So, when you have something good coming up soon, a holiday, a show, or going on a hot date, keep looking forward to it, visualise it to its full potential to keep your happiness levels high.
Now you know that rehearsing the enjoyment is enough to release the happy hormone, go ahead and milk the heck out of your brain power. Every morning, when you wake up, think of what you are looking forward to today. Lunch with a friend, a gossip with a colleague, winning a new project, starting a new series on Netflix. Anything. Know your brain. Use it. Train it. The more you do it, the easier it will become.