The WellSpan Spotlight

Mental health and wellbeing

The power of anticipation: Why it boosts our mental health

Happy little girl with big sunglasses looking at the sun

Summer is the season of anticipation.

We look forward to Memorial Day weekend barbecues, Juneteenth gatherings with family and community, and Fourth of July celebrations. Vacations, family reunions, and festive weddings. Watermelon and sweet corn. Fireflies on warm August nights. Aaaaah.

Anticipating fun times and enjoyable experiences is great for our mental health,” says Kelly Nardella, a WellSpan psychologist. “It lifts our spirits and our mood. It also motivates us to persevere through challenges.”

Science supports the power of positive prospects.

To probably no one’s surprise, a 2015 study showed that anticipating something fun is related to decreased negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression.

The effect is so powerful that we get more benefit from anticipating a potential positive event than we do from recalling an actual past positive event (so we get even more stoked about dreaming about our upcoming beach vacation than we do about remembering the great shore trip we took last summer).

The study showed that anticipating something good can even help us feel more positive about something potentially stressful. That means you can build good vibes about tackling a challenging job by planning to go out to dinner afterward at your favorite restaurant, as a reward.

The impact actually is demonstrated on a physiological level. A 2018 study asked participants to anticipate a positive event while undergoing an MRI procedure. The imaging test showed that positive anticipation caused participants brains to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that results in feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation.

“We know that we need something good to look forward to in our lives,” Nardella says.


Kelly Nardella

This summer, Nardella is eagerly anticipating the mood boost that comes from her weekly “share” of fresh, local, and seasonal fruits and vegetables from a local farmstand, where she participates in a Community Shared Agriculture program. Her family already has enjoyed strawberries, kale, and fresh beets. “Who knows what will be next?” she says. “I can’t wait to find out!”

There are ways to harness those good feelings that come from anticipation, Nardella notes. These include: 

  • Make it concrete: Imagine a good event in the future and then set goals to get there. Dreaming of a beach vacation? Figure out a budget, research lodgings and activities, and start planning that trip.
  • Find the balance: It’s OK if you feel a little anxious during your planning. What if it rains on your big vacation? What if you don’t get along with your relatives at the family reunion? Accept that life is not perfect and work on focusing on your excitement about putting your toes in the sand or about seeing faces of those you love.
  • Look for the “mini joy”: Practice anticipation on a daily basis. At the end of every day, think about or write down one thing you are excited about for tomorrow. Maybe it’s treating yourself to a cup of coffee or maybe a package is coming. Give yourself something to look forward to in the short term.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Month! Learn more about our behavioral health services here.