I spend most of the year looking forward to the holidays—twinkly lights, fireplaces, champagne flutes... all of it. I decorate obsessively, and I start planning gifts well before Halloween. Something about devising sparkling tablescapes and laying out my velvet holiday dresses brings me pure, enamored joy like nothing else—including the holiday itself.
My family and I celebrate Christmas. And last year—after spending the better half of the year in lockdown in New York City—I made a peculiar observation. I went all out during the weeks leading up to the day—gingerbread houses, light displays, creaseless wrapping jobs with satin ribbons and thoughtfully written cards. But on Christmas morning, I woke up feeling depressed.
After weeks of planning and anticipating the holiday, it felt like everything was over in a nanosecond. All of that joy was vacuumed away with the traces of shredded wrapping paper on the floor as I—once again—packed up the car to leave my family behind. I got into a fight with my Dad about the election; I cried in the bathroom in-between cranberry mimosas because my little brother is confused about what to do with his life. After all of that effort, I'd call it a less-than-average day.
And yet, a whole year later, I find myself in the exact same position. I'm buying new stockings stitched with everyone's names and my synapses erupt when I think of biting into my mom's homemade cookies. So à la Carrie Bradshaw, I can't help but wonder: why. Why am I so obsessed with the concept of "home for the holidays" when booking the plane ticket and packing up presents is more pleasurable than actually being home?
To investigate just that, I turned to psychologists Dr. Sanam Hafeez and Dr. Jenny Yip.
Meet the Expert
Understanding the Psychology of Anticipation
"Anticipation can be the key driving force in motivating yourself to get through life as you look forward to something that gives you a sense of optimism toward the future," says Hafeez. "If you’re having difficulty dealing with the past or present, anticipating what’s next can help get you through it." So in other words, positive anticipation can be a particularly useful tool to help us get through the complexities of life.
"Planning for the holidays gives people a goal and meaning," adds Yip. "For most people, it gives them an outlet to use their creative energy and look forward to an event that’s fun or meaningful." When we look forward to an event in the future, it stimulates the limbic cortex, where, according to Hafeez, happiness and excitement originate. It also triggers a release of dopamine, the hormone associated with reward-based pleasure.
Hafeez cites one 2017 study that looked at 40 participants' brains during an MRI scan. The participants were asked to think about a positive, upcoming event, and the results showed that the "bilateral medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) were activated during anticipation for positive events relative to neutral events, and the enhanced brain activation in MPFC was associated with a higher level of well-being." Another 2018 study found that envisioning a "brighter future" for yourself was associated with having a stronger sense of your own personal meaning of life. This is all to say that having events you look forward to in the future can actually psychologically improve your overall well-being in the present.
So in a time when the pandemic has given us very little to look forward to, it's to be expected that we all might be making a bigger deal of the holidays—no matter what or how you celebrate. "The holidays are a prime example of nostalgic memories arising and being used as distractions to have something to look forward to during what can be the most difficult times of the year," says Hafeez. "With all the expectations and stress implicated during the holidays, thinking about Thanksgiving dinner and spending time with family and friends during those times can help trigger happier thoughts. Even if you’re extra cautious in limiting the number of people you’re making close contact with, the idea of crisper weather, special meals, giving and receiving gifts, and even the music can be enough to brighten up gloomy thoughts."
So if our brains are hardwired to anticipate positive events—and if this anticipation is a great boost for our mental health—why the day-of letdown? According to Yip, it's all about setting expectations.
"We have a lot of expectations," she explains. "It’s like traveling, right? Whenever we travel, we keep our fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly as planned," she says. "But there’s always something that’s bound to go wrong, which can lead to disappointment. It’s always useful to have a plan, but you also have to be flexible about your plan."
Yip notes that the best way to combat these feelings of letdown is to practice flexibility. "Maintaining a flexible mindset allows you to zoom out and see the bigger picture so that you can come up with alternative solutions and possibilities," she says. In other words, it's good for you to picture the exciting things that are to come—but don't get caught up in the details you've drawn up in your imagination.
For me, that means I can look forward to sitting around the tree with my family and spending quality time together. But I have to let go of the idea that every minute of our conversations will be merry and bright. According to Yip, the more I can let go of the small stuff that doesn't go as planned, the more I can be present in the actual moment—not just the moment I've imagined in my head—and truly enjoy the holiday.
How to Hack the Psychology of Anticipation During the Holidays
Having something you genuinely look forward to not only stimulates our brains in positive, dopamine-releasing ways, but anticipation can also be used strategically to change our perspective on less-than-desirable events. Here's how:
Book Your Plans—Don't Just Talk About Them
Perhaps you look forward to spending the holidays in your hometown surrounded by friends and family—but don't let the time pass you by. Book holiday activities you love in advance so you have a specific date and time to look forward to.
Schedule Calls With Meaningful People in Your Life
During the holidays, you might find yourself surrounded by your biological family, which, depending on your relationship, can be a difficult experience. If this is the case for you, schedule regular check-ins with close, trusted friends that you can look forward to each day.
Fill Your Least Favorite Time of the Day With Activities You Love
If you're not a morning person, it can only make matters worse when you're surrounded by relatives that love to chat first thing in the morning. Fill this time with an activity you genuinely love, whether that's going for a drive alone to pick up your favorite latte or catching an in-person class at the gym. The same practice can be beneficial if you tend to feel anxious or alone at night—make yourself your favorite, nourishing snack or throw on a comforting movie. Then, all day, you can look forward to cozying up under a blanket and spending some time alone.
Plan Something for After the Holidays
If you're anything like me, you might experience a bit of an emotional hangover after the holidays. Leaving my family and childhood home after an extended stay can weigh on me, but it helps to have something to look forward to beyond the holidays. Last year, I booked a cozy cabin stay in the Catskills for the week after New Year's. The year before that, I planned a full day for myself to have my favorite brunch, get a fresh manicure, and read a book by the fireplace at one of my favorite pubs.
Above All, Maintain a Flexible Mindset
Remember, according to Yip, managing your expectations is key. There's no harm in daydreaming about a cozy holiday at home, but remember that it's impossible to control every detail. Plans will inevitably go off the tracks, and the more you can accept when outcomes aren't exactly as you intended, the faster you can move on and enjoy the time.
Luo Y, Chen X, Qi S, You X, Huang X. Well-being and anticipation for future positive events: evidences from an fmri study. Front Psychol. 2018;8:2199.
van Tilburg WAP, Igou ER. Dreaming of a brighter future: anticipating happiness instills meaning in life. J Happiness Stud. 2019;20(2):541-559.