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How Anticipation Can Save the Day

written by Aren Cohen 13 June 2007

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

I have a tendency to be a worrier.  When I think about the future, I think about all the “What ifs” contemplating all the things that will be out of my control, and possibly even all the things that could go wrong.

In truth, as a positive psychologist, I am embarrassed to admit to my propensity for worry.  Worry doesn’t jive with someone in the business of helping people live in the world of their strengths to flourish.  So, this has gotten me thinking, what can I do, both for myself and others, to stem this trend of worry?



While I suppose one can worry about the past, present and future, in this case I am going to focus on future worry because lately I have been thinking about anticipation and anticipatory savoring.  In a sense, worry happens because we are anticipating.  But is there a way to anticipate without it turning into a stressful event? 

According to George Vaillant, anticipation is an “adaptive mental mechanism.”  He defines anticipation as “the capacity to perceive future danger affectively as well as cognitively and by this means to master conflict in small steps” (Vaillant, 2000).  The notion that anticipation is our ability to see danger and cope with it so that we master it is wonderful.  It is a coping mechanism that allows us to change our anxiety into strength because we can overcome and conquer the obstacles in our way.  

As I think about it now, I am preparing for an upcoming trip.  With anticipation I have been printing maps and addresses trying to plot my comings and goings.  I realize that this strategy, while partly fueled by worry, is also my anticipation coming into play so that I don’t wind up lost on my very first day.

Even more than anticipation as a coping mechanism, I believe that anticipatory savoring can be employed to move from worry to joy.  When we start using optimism to look ahead at our plans for the future, the dangers start to recede and we can be more relaxed when we think about the future. 

In the book Savoring, Bryant & Veroff (2007) talk about the implications of anticipatory savoring.  While anticipatory savoring can be helpful to help enhance the moment in the future, we also have to be careful because anticipatory savoring can create either hopes that are too high, or it can wreak the surprise of the future (Bryant & Veroff 2007).  However, I still believe that anticipating with the perspective of healthy optimism rather than constant concern has a transformative effect.  It allows a person to look forward to the events in the future with a positive frame of mind.

Lately I have taken to making collages as part of my anticipatory savoring.  Realizing that I can never know the future, but that I can put ideas out there for what I would like to have happen, I use this form of art therapy to allow for some anticipatory savoring.  Knowing that I am not asking for something very specific but something general, I don’t seem to run up against high hopes or spoiled surprises.  But I do find that I can look at my collage and my worry becomes hopes and goals.  This change of perspective is constructive because it allows me to approach the dangers of the future with a positive mindset that allows me to relish rather than fear the future.  What could be better than looking at the future with eyes wide open and an upbeat outlook? 




Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vaillant, G. E. (2000) Adaptive mental mechanisms: Their role in positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89-98.

A New Path courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

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1 comment

Nicholas Hall 13 June 2007 - 11:59 pm


Your article makes me sit and smile. Simply.

It is, in a way, a form of play you are taking with your worry. By transforming it into an art collage, you are playing with your mind and your emotions, transforming them into something positive and hopeful. And by cutting them out and gluing them on paper as a static physical thing to return to, you have created a device with which to savor those positive anticipatory thoughts and emotions. The negative ones are there, but they are transitory. You have made permanent and accessible the positive ones.

It makes me smile.



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