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The High of Anticipation

Ever wonder why you love to muse about a future when you’ll be thin/happy/a “normal” eater/successful/popular/etc.? Or why much of your time is spent contemplating tomorrow rather than living in today? Science can explain why you do this.

It’s no accident that we get a buzz from anticipation. Our automatic reactions are due to evolution, meaning they serve a life-enhancing purpose. In this case, the brain produces dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter (and rat equivalent of a food pellet), when it thinks about reward. Contemplation is a positive activity which can lead to strategizing and problem-solving to ensure that events happen as we want them to. Early humans who happened to get a jolt of dopamine when they were thinking about the future—killing a wild pig to feast on, finding a cave to provide shelter, or going through a special ritual to become an adult—would be more inclined to repeat contemplation to receive pleasure and all that thinking would likely bring them success. Hence, increased success (ie, a longer life) would incline them to pass on their genes.
This rush of anticipation is why many disregulated eaters enjoy daydreaming. It’s a high in itself—with no risk and no work attached to spending time on fantasy island. Can you see how anticipating eating favorite foods, being at a desired weight, starting a new diet, or reading a book which promises overnight success might bring you a sweet little burst of feel-good? You’re contemplating a brighter future, one you believe will bring greater happiness (though this might not be remotely true). Also, new activities are more likely to generate dopamine than ones you’ve done a million times because, again through evolution, stumbling upon a novel way of doing an activity has often brought about success. Something doesn’t work one way, well, try another. That’s one of the reasons that new diets are so appealing and seductive.

There’s nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying the anticipation of pleasure—the delicious joy as you rush out to meet your lover or head off to your favorite vacation spot. However, it’s unhealthy to become dependent on anticipation for pleasure rather than seeking such experience in the present. Spending too much time contemplating future rewards takes away precious moments when you could be feeling joy and satisfaction in the here and now. Beware of getting lulled into daydreaming to generate good feelings. Today, this moment, is all we have. Practice “normal” eating and loving your body now rather than thinking about the success you’ll have tomorrow. Train your brain to go for long-term rather than short-term rewards and you’ll be a lot happier.