The joy of waiting

I have started doing something that until recently I hadn't been doing a lot of – waiting.

There’s been a book that I’ve been wanting to buy for a while now. It’s not a particularly special book. Just a book that’s been on my list of things I’ve been wanting to read. I’ve been to my favourite book shop in town a few times and read the dust jacket. I’ve popped it into my cart on an online book shopping portal. But I’ve been refraining from purchasing it both online and in person.

The initial reason for this was because I’d noticed I was falling into a pattern of buying books when I saw them and then letting them sit in piles next to my bed neglected for months until it was their turn to be read. And whilst it’s nice to be able to choose a book from a seemingly endless library, personal space was becoming an issue.

But now the reason for postponing the purchase is because I am starting to really enjoy the process of anticipation.

I think that I’d forgotten how lovely looking forward to things can be. Furthermore it turns out I have become somewhat of a total spoiled princess who has become so accustomed to a world where instant gratification is so common and efficient and easy, that I’d nearly forgotten that there was even another option.

Anticipation is actually really good for us. It makes us produce dopamine – which is the chemical in our brain which makes us feel motivated and excited and pretty happy. Research shows that people are happier when they are looking forward to an upcoming holiday than when they are actually on the holiday. Furthermore, anticipating a holiday makes you happier than when you are looking back on a successful trip away. Also, the more you anticipate something, the easier it becomes to overcome any obstacles (as long as we don’t get stuck in any unrealistic fantasies – or anxieties!).

But some of us are lucky enough to live in a world now where instant gratification has penetrated so many aspects of our lives. But because we take the anticipation out of the equation these things can lose their meaning or their reward pretty quickly.

Last weekend I was talking to an older gentleman friend who was sharing his experiences of how he worked as a Telegram Officer “back in the day”. He was sharing stories of riding his push bike from the post office to people's houses relaying messages of their unwell family members inter-state or their upcoming work postings etc. Within the hour of that conversation I heard him become incredibly irate with a friend of his who was not answering his mobile phone.

Today’s world is all pretty fast and convenient but it means that we can lose the pleasure of delayed gratification. In the infamous Stanford marshmallow study of late 1960's and early 1970's, children were given a marshmallow that were told they could eat right away, but that if they could wait fifteen minutes, they would get two marshmallows. Less than a third of the children could summon up the patience to wait for the second marshmallow. Years later, a follow-up study found that those young people who were able to hold out for the second marshmallow (i.e., get the greater pleasure later) had better outcomes on a lot of fronts: they achieved better grades at school, were physically healthier and they scored higher on tests of resilience and happiness.

It seems like a bit of a paradox really. We might be blessed enough that we don’t have to wait long for things anymore, but there’s a kind of restlessness which leads to us enjoying ourselves less. As Louis CK says “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”. If we’ve always got everything we want and when we want it, we’re constantly in a cycle of dissatisfaction. Looking out for the next ‘thing’ (product, gadget, experience), without ever reaching the stage of quiet enjoyment and satisfaction with what we have.

So I’m going to hold off on buying that book. I’m going to postpone my pleasure on that, but also on other things. I’m going to set some social dates for the future, that I can really look forward to. I’m going to spend the time cooking a big meal for some loved ones rather than whipping up a 10-minute wonder. I might even try watching a TV show at a set time each week, rather than binge watching 4 episodes in a row when I’m bored.

A bit like what they did “back in the day”.

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