With summer at our doorstep, we would normally be making vacation plans, attending community festivals and finding other celebratory ways to enjoy the nice weather. These are usually the things we look forward to—the rewards for getting through another winter.
But things will be different this year.
Mental-health wise, it’s still really important to have things to look forward to. Think of this as a booster, or positive energizer. This helps to counter the boredom and exhaustion we may have been feeling, while redirecting anxiety. And it’s especially helpful for getting through tough times.
We hear a lot about the importance of living in the present, or practicing mindfulness. While this is great advice, what about when the present doesn’t feel so good—when it’s stressful, tedious or overwhelming?
When we aren’t looking forward to something (because we dread/fear/don’t enjoy it), we really don’t want to live in the present moment. This is when we start just passing time, waiting for something better to happen. With so much on hold, we’ve lost much of our ability to plan our lives right now.
But shifting our perspective towards something positive in the future can provide that little nudge forward, so we don’t stay stuck in the difficult feelings. It doesn’t replace all we’ve lost, but it sure helps create moments of hope.
Some people call this goal setting. Others call it dreaming, positive anticipation, or making a wish list. Whatever you call it, it’s about planning for things, big and small, that help pull us out of challenging times and make things feel a little brighter.
Actively looking forward to things creates rewards in our lives and motivates us to follow through on things – because we want to. It’s about giving our mind a positive view of the future, helping us appreciate what we have, and reducing the impact of stressors. It brings a sense of excitement for what’s to come.
Most of us have become very acquainted with anticipation during this pandemic. There’s anticipatory anxiety - dreading the unknowns to come. There’s also anticipatory grief - feeling grief about impending losses.
There is also positive anticipation – experiencing happiness before an event takes place just because you know it’s coming. This helps shift our perspective to start noticing more of the opportunities around us.
So take a moment to ask yourself …what am I looking forward to? If this is tough, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Think of something fun – and make sure it’s something that YOU find fun. If hiking or listening to jazz is not your thing, then don’t put them on your list because they won’t feel like rewards. Maybe you’re more of salsa dancer wannabe, or a cardboard castle engineer. Whatever your thing is, come up with 5-10 ideas that you really enjoy and get excited about.
- Pick something accomplishable – and something that can be done safely during COVID19 restrictions. Aiming to throw a huge celebratory dinner party is not going to be realistic – but hosting a virtual happy hour or outdoor picnic with several friends could be. This is where you adapt your first list to make it work during COVID times.
- Aim for something big AND small – that way you can get a reward now AND later. Small things might be starting each day with one intention (e.g. Looking for the most inspiring flower garden today). It could also be planning to have something to look forward to at the end of the week (e.g. Treating yourself to a new local take-out place you’ve always wanted to try). Something bigger could be for a time way down the road (e.g. Dreaming up the perfect post-COVID vacation). Let your imagination soar!
- Put it on your calendar – aside from reminding us what day it is (and who hasn’t lost track lately?), marking your calendar helps build anticipation. It provides a visual reminder that there’s something good to come. And it reminds us to take time for rewards in our life.
We don’t have to stay in anxiety or stress every moment due to COVID. Go ahead and give yourself permission to schedule things to look forward to. It’s good for our mental health to be drawn into the future in positive ways. And it’s healthy to have fun while feeling a little more control in our life right now!
Lois Didyk, MSW, RSW, is a social worker with Michael Garron Hospital Mental Health Services. She has worked for the past 30 years with Community Outreach Services and more recently, with the Mental Health SCOPE Program.