“Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
I love traveling to strange places off the beaten path. I love road trips, I love exploring, and I love finding hidden gems along the way. All of these things bring me a lot of happiness. But something that brings as much or more happiness is just the process of planning the trip. I love researching, I love planning, I love talking with friends and gathering recommendations. Of course I am not alone in this.
Trips, like a good story or a lesson, come in three phases: the anticipation phase, the savoring phase, and the reflection phase. As a teacher, the beginning of a lesson serves the most important purpose - the "hook" or in educational terms, the "anticipatory set". The anticipatory set is meant to "focus students attention, provide a brief practice and/or develop a readiness for instruction to follow" it "helps students to get mentally or physically ready" for the days objective. The anticipation is what drives the lesson. It is when the inquiry starts and (hopefully) the curiosity is ignited.
Anticipation, in general, works this way. The latin root of anticipate - ante-capio literally means to take before or to cause something to happen sooner. When you are anticipating something, the positive emotions associated with what you are anticipating happen sooner. If you are going on a great vacation, getting married, or buying a house, you feel the happiness boost well before the event takes place.
And it's not just anecdotal, there are several studies that back me up on this. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life found that among participants, the majority of people felt happiest before a trip - even more so than on the trip itself. Another study commissioned by booking.com found similar results. In the study, 72% of people experienced an immediate high when booking a trip, 56% said they were at their happiest when booking, and over a third said they thought about their trip once or more per day for a quick pick me up.
These studies aren't surprising when you think of the vast history of delayed gratification research. People who are able to delay gratification have always been posited to be happier in the long term. Like the famous 1970's cookie and marshmallow experiments where the children who could delay their gratification received not only another cookie or marshmallow but were found to later do better in school, have less behavior problems, higher SAT scores, higher incomes and on and on. The trajectory for those who couldn't was much more negative.
What does this have to do with anticipation? Well, there is a ton of research that suggests that not only does delaying gratification build willpower and more successful people, but it actually makes the thing you have delayed that much more satisfying.
According to Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and happiness researcher, "it is better to immerse yourself" into the planning and anticipation stages of a trip for many reasons. It helps to actually smooth over discrepancies in your expectations vs reality of the trip, you learn something new, and it gives moments of novelty to your everyday routine.
Novelty is at the crux of anticipatory planning for me. As University of California professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has found in her research, because of the concept of "hedonic adaptation" we return to our baseline levels of happiness after adapting to positive and negative experiences. Basically, once we get what we've wanted we adapt to it - it becomes our new normal and alas, it becomes boring and we take it for granted. The way she and other researchers suggest to counteract the adaptation is through novelty, variety, and surprise. Simply changing your daily routine to spend ten minutes researching an airbnb or a trail you want to hike can provide the variety to keep your levels of happiness up.
So how can you apply this to your life? Well, plan something! It can be a year in advance! In fact, that would be awesome - you have a whole year to anticipate and plan. Here are some things I do in the Anticipatory Phase:
I create a pinterest board for trips I have coming up. That way I can browse through posts about the area, specific things I want to see, photography, packing tips etc. and pin the things that excite me. I may never go back to any of the boards but the excitement is in the creating.
Of course! I have nothing without books. Read about the place you are going! I read Astoria before visiting the Grand Tetons, a Georgia O'Keeffee biography before visiting Santa Fe, and read parts of Wild pretty much anytime I go on a hike. There is a great website: Longitude Books that has books organized geographically (so smart).
Watch a movie that's set in the area, watch a TV show with a similar backdrop (or exact hello Westworld), look up documentaries on YouTube.. the possibilities are endless. I've spent many nights watching random internet videos of Bishops Castle or Arcosanti (currently anticipating) to prepare for a trip.
Basically, google it. There is information on everything in a form of communication that you enjoy. Trust me. (Or just start here)
Buy some new gear! Even if it's something small. I bought a new pair of leggings before I went to NYC that I've needed for months but it felt special to "buy them for New York".
This is just fun (well if you have some available phone storage). There are many apps that countdown to events in your life. I generally download one once I have a trip confirmed, set my arrival time, maybe a background photo of where I am going, and I can look at it whenever I need a pick me up. It sounds small but it's really kind of gratifying.
Talk About It!
Talk to your friends about your trip. Social bonds increase happiness already so it's a double win. And you'd be surprised how many people have already been to the seemingly obscure Utopian off-grid community you are going to and they can be great resources.
So don't be afraid to anticipate. Don't fall into the trap (that I sometimes do) of being afraid to think too much or plan too much so you won't be let down. Because even if the trip is a letdown, you've experienced a lot of joy already. :)