Why We *Need* Something To Look Forward To, According To Science

Photo: getty
Why We Need Something To Look Forward To, According To Science

Before March, one of the best things in life was marking off your calendar countdown to a family wedding, music festival, summer vacation, or dinner with friends.

When the weeks are long and days at the office seem never-ending, having something to work towards made daily life just a little easier. So, when the coronavirus pandemic hit a global pause button on life as we knew it, a lot of us were left feeling a little stuck. 

Sure, in the grand scheme of things, your graduation being canceled or your travel plans getting postponed isn’t the end of the world, but it completely normal to grieve this shift in your life path. 

In fact, it’s scientifically impossible to not feel somewhat affected by the lack of goals and change in your life right now.

Ambition and plans propel a sense of purpose in our daily lives. That's why we need something to look forward to.

RELATED: 14 Ways To Keep Productivity High & Stress Low While Working From Home During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Being caught in a stage of uncertainty is unnerving when you feel like your fate is out of your control. We’re stuck at home without our usual coping mechanisms and are living from one day to the next, feeling like we have no ability to set goals.

Think of winter days when it’s dark and cold out — some of the main things that keep us going are excitement about gathering with family for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hannukah. These little things give your life an exciting lift and become an important motivator to keep going. 

Humans use these end goals as a destination, so the less enjoyable parts of life just become part of the map while getting there.

“Without the vision, you’re on a road to nowhere. Without the goals, you have a destination but no motor,” says Dr. Frank Murtha, a New York-based counseling psychologist.

Without something to look forward to, it’s easy to feel powerless and stuck in an endless "now."

Even though some psychologists would argue that we need to focus more on living in the moment, this lacks meaning when we don’t have full control over our present situation. Plus, having something to look forward to is about a lot more than just counting down the days. 

In fact, we’re chemically wired to feel good about achieving goals! Reaching certain milestones, no matter how big or small, plays an important role in balancing our brains positivity receptors.

RELATED: The Real Reason You Can't Stay Motivated — & The Easy Fix That Helps You Reach Your Goals

When we experience personal successes, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine into our reward pathway. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for pleasure, learning, and motivation.

Dopamine hits help us feel more life satisfaction and give us the inspiration to set more goals so we can re-experience the activity that caused the chemical release in the first place. The cultivation of wins propels us on to achieve bigger successes.  

We also use looking forward to things as a form of stress management.

Studies have shown that goal-setting and positive anticipation prevents our stress level from spiraling out of control. Our moods are significantly boosted when stress leads to a specific reward in comparison to stress that has no end-goal.

So, without dinner with friends or a weekend activity to keep you going through a hectic work week, we’re left feeling like our stress builds with each day spent in quarantine. 

It’s important to keep things in perspective during this time. We must recognize that our behavior now, while repetitive and claustrophobic, will have positive consequences down the line. By staying inside, we’re guaranteeing a future where life will eventually resume.

It’s also possible to find new short-term goals and ambitions to sustain our dopamine production during this time.

Here’s how you can continue to look forward to things in the future, despite the pandemic.

RELATED: How To Keep Yourself On Track For Accomplishing Your 2020 Goals

1. Start a new hobby.

Having a new passion or fun distraction helps give you day some structure. Save up for a new camera or work towards knitting yourself a sweater.

These small things will help you set goals and work towards them.

2. Make relaxation a reward. 

Quarantine involves a lot of sitting around and doing nothing, which used to be fun when it was a weekend treat. But now, it’s becoming a task in itself.

Occupy your day with work, chores or errands, and set aside a time in the evening to chill out so you can look forward to it rather than dread the boredom of it. 

3. Stay stocked up on your favorite snacks.

Treating yourself to a delicious cake or sweet treat at the end of a long day will help you have a goal in mind when working from home. Say to yourself, “Once I complete this, I can treat myself.”

4. Keep your social calendar full.

Plan out your week with lots of video calls or virtual game nights. Just because we can’t go for after-work drinks or weekend bar-hopping doesn’t mean we can’t keep living for the weekend at home!

5. Journal your positive thoughts.

Keeping a list of things that make us happy, or positive affirmations, keeps us feeling joyful even when the world is testing us. You could also try writing up a bucket list of long-term goals for when things calm down a little. 

RELATED: 10 Ways To Set (& Achieve) Goals That Will Actually Change Your Life

Alice Kelly is a writer with a passion for lifestyle, entertainment, and trending topics.