Using Anticipation to Be Happier In Life

How can anticipation of a rewarding future event make an already happy person happier? The impact on how people perceive happiness may vary, but the notion that it is possible to be happier through anticipation has implications for consumers and businesses alike.

The “i anticipate the things others need in order to feel happy” is a technique that can help you be happier in life. The idea is to imagine yourself in your future and what you would like it to look like, then work towards achieving those goals.

Man anticipating vacation illustration by AOM.

While dopamine is often referred to as the “pleasure chemical,” it is more accurately described as the “anticipation chemical.” It’s activated when you’re anticipating a future reward. It’s heightened in the presence of novelty and uncertainty — when you imagine something fantastic occurring but aren’t sure whether it will or what it would be like.

Dopamine is a neutral neurotransmitter that has neither positive or negative effects. It may, however, be managed and harnessed in ways that help or impede your capacity to live a fulfilling life.  

Two major concerns occur in the domain of impediment.

The first, as we discussed last month, is that you may get addicted to the joyful, thrilling rush of drive that dopamine provides in the early stages of pursuing anything… only to discover that you can’t continue with it after that first burst of energy fades. This is especially troublesome in the context of longer-term commitments: whereas the dopamine-fueled honeymoon phase lasts just a few weeks, maintaining a relationship, goal, hobby, or religion might take years, if not decades. People who can’t make the transition from the dopamine rush of desiring something to the distinct pleasures of having it leave half-finished projects after half-finished projects, chasing after the next dopamine rush.

While we might grow too reliant on dopamine, many individuals suffer from a different problem: a lack of dopaminergic stimulation in their life. 

Dopamine is a pleasure molecule, meaning it makes you feel good while you’re anticipating something. And mastering the technique of structuring your life to optimize this specific pleasure is a true art.

The Dopamine Problem in Adulthood

Do you recall where we left off in our last dopamine article? It began with a passage from Casino Royale, in which Ian Fleming explained how James Bond lamented his relationships’ “standard parabola”: they began with upwardly arcing desire but rapidly descended into dullness and terrible break-ups once consummated.

Surprisingly, that aside was utilized to contrast these less-than-stellar former relationships with the one Bond forms in that novel. While recovering after a botched mission, 007 discovers that he is physically unable of having sex with his love interest, Vesper, and is forced to put their romance on hold until he recovers. So, rather of going directly into bed with her as he does with other women, he takes his time getting to know her and gradually building their friendship and sexual tension:

Her presence was an oasis of joy, something to look forward to, amid the drab room and the monotony of his therapy. There was nothing except camaraderie in their conversation, with a faint undertone of desire. In the background, there was an underlying excitement about the promise that would be fulfilled in their own time.

When the two eventually get together, their lovemaking is electrifying, and Bond is so taken with Vesper that the traditionally roguish secret agent decides to propose to her.

The power of anticipation is undeniable.


Anticipation creates a pleasant tension. Expectancy that has been heightened. It’s an emotion captured in the want to know what’s inside a gift-wrapped box when you see it. Dopamine detects a potential reward, conjures up a rosy vision of what it may be at its best, and elicits a desire to get your hands on it, to experience it personally, to see just how amazing it could be.

Dopamine levels drop after we know what’s in the “box.”

While we often believe that receiving what we desire is the most important thing, the most intense source of pleasure is anticipating getting what we want. Everyone knows that the build-up to Christmas is significantly more enjoyable than the actual holiday. People like the anticipation of their trips more than the holidays themselves, according to studies. We get to study the still-perfect vision of what lies ahead, unadulterated by the nuanced complexity of reality, while we’re in the throes of expectation.

Given that dopamine-fueled anticipation increases in the face of novelty, firsts, and newness, it’s predictable that it’s in short supply in many a routine-hardened adulthood that contains everything else.

Consider the following graphs comparing the dopaminergic “landscape” of early adulthood to that of later life:

Graph of "The Dopaminegic Terrain Of Young Adulthood".

Graph of "The Dopaminegic Terrain Of Later Adulthood".

Young adulthood is characterized by arcs of dopaminergic excitement, whereas later adulthood reveals a life that has plateaued. One is visually appealing, whereas the other is monotonously uniform. One conjures up the exhilaration of a rough mountain range, while the other conjures up the sterility of a desert.  

Of course, the downward-sloping slopes of youth’s undulations do add to life’s anxiety and insecurity, and transitioning to greater stability in certain areas — especially those longer-term projects mentioned above — is a healthy and desirable part of maturation; rather than constantly trading in life’s foundational building blocks for brand new go-rounds, most people want to settle down with someone, stick with, if not the same job, the same vocational path, and build a life with them.

While you don’t want to ride the dopamine cycle’s parabola restlessly in areas where you’re trying to make things that stay, there’s plenty of opportunity in life for “one-off” events. Even within the more permanent structures of adulthood, it’s important to preserve a sense of novelty — and the dopaminergic thrill that comes with it.

Anticipation is a skill that may be learned.

Graph of "Flourishing Later Adulthood".

A happy adulthood is made up of both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Not just keeping life’s core building blocks (spouse, friends, house, work) secure, but also improving them, brings satisfaction. At the same time, new experiences and firsts are sought; although the intensity of early adulthood’s dopaminergic undulations cannot be fully duplicated, later adulthood may nevertheless have a diverse and exciting terrain if approached with purpose.

The following two variables must be cultivated in order to feel more of the dopaminergic charge of anticipation in life:


Do Something Different (In the Form of Novelty or Uncertainty)…

When we approach something new, dopamine is released.

While adulthood might be devoid of novelty, it does not have to be. There are always new people to meet, new books to read, new hobbies to attempt, and new hiking paths to explore.

While we may have accomplished many important firsts in our younger years, there will be many more in the decades ahead: first time to X location, first piano performance (playing a musical instrument isn’t only for youngsters), first marathon. It doesn’t have to be large; going to a new restaurant for the first time, or going to an art festival or museum for the first time, will all pique your interest. There are also all of the firsts you’ll see when your children experience their own firsts.

It’s also not necessary for the freshness in your life to be strictly new. Consider novelty to be everything that has a degree of uncertainty, not only newness.

Dopamine may be found in any nook of space and time where you aren’t sure what to anticipate.

When you’re about to do something you’ve done previously but haven’t done in a long, this might happen.

When you think about spending an evening eating frozen pizza and watching Netflix, you already know what to anticipate, so there’s no dopamine or “buzz” in the air.

When you perform something you haven’t done in a long and there are factors that aren’t 100% guaranteed and may change, your brain “forgets” what it would be like and perceives the potential of the unexpected. In the space between how good something was last time and how rewarding it may be this time, there’s opportunity for mistake, and dopamine might arise.

The presence of other individuals is a constant source of uncertainty and, as a result, dopaminergic anticipation. You never know how a human connection will go, especially with someone you don’t see as often as those you live with on a daily basis. Will your chemistry be a match made in heaven? Will you wow them with a clever remark or insight? Will you make an embarrassing bomb? Will you put up a fight? Will you or the other person unveil a new layer of yourself?

As a result, if you want more dopamine in your life, you should socialize more often.


Your smartphone is a never-ending dopamine guzzler. Will I have a new text because of its excellent slot-machine-like set-up of important but unknown rewards? How many people have liked my Instagram post? — the dopamine-fueled need to check one’s phone is practically impossible to ignore. That irresistibility, on the other hand, is one of the reasons why phone-produced dopamine doesn’t offer us any actual pleasure; as soon as the thought of a potential digital reward reaches our brains, we suffocate it by staring at our phones. (The other aspect is that, unlike dopaminergic motivation, which may lead to deeper connections, sharper abilities, and new experiences, the dopaminergic drive to check your phone leads to little more than the intake of ethereal “one-byte” markers of superficial status.)


If you decide to do something new and act on it right away, there isn’t much time for anticipation — and the dopamine rush that comes with it — to grow.

The key to practicing the art of anticipation is to wait to do new things rather than doing them right away.

Graphical Comparison between Random dopamine bursts in thinking about a hypothetical event and Anticipatory dopaminegic arc in scheduled event.

While hazily considering a possibility for which you’ve made no actual commitment might release dopamine in little bursts, the true magic of anticipation arrives when you arrange an event with an element of novelty/uncertainty for a particular future date.

When you postpone satisfaction of a want and can anticipate a certain moment when it will be met, you enable the wonderful pleasure of anticipation to gradually crescendo as the fulfillment date approaches. A emotion that commonly goes hand in hand with anticipation: worry, does not cancel or rather augment this pleasure. Whether it’s a vacation you’ve planned for yourself or a party you’ve organized for others, the effortful means that build up to a good end are typically accompanied with a little worry (and even anxiety). But it can be a healthy component of the charge surrounding dopamine’s upward arc; it’s fitting that we call it “pregnant with possibilities,” because when there’s a “due date” for any upcoming event, the weight of expectation grows heavier as the date approaches, until we’re finally ready to feel the elated release of that pent up, even uncomfortable tension.

As a result, there is a lot of wisdom in planning out your free time.

If you plan your vacation a year in advance, you’ll have 12 months of anticipation, which may be heightened even further if you devote more of your thoughts to the trip ahead — researching the place, fine-tuning your schedule. Or, instead of one major journey, take a few little ones to add more anticipatory undulations to your life’s landscape.

Make a conscious effort to arrange your “micro” leisure as well: Make plans for a weekend walk or dinner date to give yourself something to look forward to while you get through the Monday to Friday grind. Arrange a lunch with a seldom seen buddy at a new restaurant a few days ahead of time. Concoct an evening adventure with little regard for reality.

Remember that the events you’re anticipating don’t have to be unique in the sense that you’ve never done them before, but rather that they have a level of uncertainty due to the passage of time and/or the presence of other people. Making such events “seasonal”: recurring dates, customs that occur every year, month, or even week, might actually increase the dopaminergic enthusiasm around them. The anticipation that rides on a rhythmic river is wonderful, as are the sensations that increase with each turn of the chronological wheel, both familiar and new. 

You may optimize the delights of gazing forward when you grasp the art of anticipation. Such anticipation does not exclude a thoughtful acceptance of the current moment; rather, it provides a buoyancy that makes the weight of the present moment bearable.


Make sure to listen to our dopamine-themed podcast: 




Anticipation is the feeling of excitement or eagerness before an event. It can be used to make life more enjoyable and interesting. Reference: anticipation meaning.

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