What brings more happiness: anticipation or surprise?



What follows is a true story in which your humble narrator is faced with a real life test of his ivory tower research posts and responds by nearly losing bowel control:


So you’re going to give someone a gift — is it better to tell them it’s coming and let them savor the anticipation or to whallop them out of nowhere with an enormous surprise?

It’s a good question. A very good question.

And I’m not flattering myself here because I didn’t come up with it.

I got an email from a reader last week. He had secretly made plans to take his girlfriend on a Carribean cruise.

But he wasn’t sure how to “maximize” their happiness. Should he tell her about it in advance and let her anticipate or drive her up to the dock blindfolded on the big day?

He wanted a real answer with some substance, not just an opinion.

And so he asked me.

Wow. Okay.

So the first thing I do is…


Seriously folks, normally I post something and if it’s lame, eh, I’ll live. Happens. I’ll work harder on tomorrow’s posts.

But now I got this guy’s vacation on my shoulders. Someone is actually using this information. Last thing I want is angry, rum-soaked postcards from Jamaica telling me I screwed up his trip.

So after doing everything in my house that doesn’t really need to be done, I sit down and look it up and…

THANK GOD ALMIGHTY, there’s a clear and straightforward answer to his question:


Anticipation is powerful.


From Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage:

“One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent. Often, the most enjoyable part of an activity is the anticipation. If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar—even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.”

In fact, anticipating pleasure can sometimes be more enjoyable than the event itself. By delaying good things we increase happiness:

…there is a second reason why consume now, pay later is a bad idea: it eliminates anticipation, and anticipation is a source of free happiness. The person who buys a cookie and eats it right away may get X units of pleasure from it, but the person who saves the cookie until later gets X units of pleasure when it is eventually eaten plus all the additional pleasure of looking forward to the event. Research shows that people can reap substantial enjoyment from anticipating an upcoming event even if the event itself is not entirely enjoyable. Examining three different vacations ranging from a trip to Europe to a bicycle trip through California, Mitchell et al (1997) found that people viewed the vacation in a more positive light before the experience than during the experience, suggesting that anticipation may sometimes provide more pleasure than consumption simply because it is unsullied by reality. Not surprisingly, then, people who devote time to anticipating enjoyable experiences report being happier in general (Bryant, 2003).

So I send it off to him. And he is thrilled.

But more surprisingly, I am thrilled. I feel like *I* just won a trip to the Carribean.

In fact, it was so amazing that I’m going to do the most selfish thing I can think of right now to increase my happiness:

If you want to email me a question that you’re crazy enough to think I might be able to help with, go ahead.

I’m not Dear Abby but if there’s research I’ve read and or a post I can point to, I’ll give it my best shot. With permission, now and then I’ll post a Q+A that might be interesting to everyone.

It’d be cool to informally “test” some of this stuff and see if it can really help. If you’re a regular reader you probably have an idea of what subjects are in my wheelhouse. If not, the posts in the upper left hand corner are a good starting point.

Mind you, every disclaimer in the universe applies here:

  • I won’t be able to respond to everyone.
  • I won’t be posting everything.
  • If you have real problems, you should see a real doctor, not email some guy who posts stuff on the internet.
  • I’m not a licensed therapist or a certified life coach and I got my PhD from the University of Nowhere. (I often look back on older posts and wonder if English really is my native language.)
  • Etc, etc, ad infinitum.

That said, let’s give it a shot. You can email me here.

I want to improve myself. If I can help you do that too, there’s nothing I’d like better.

This might be fun. Let’s see what happens. Stay tuned.  :)

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