Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, the most tradition-filled day of the year for me and my family. Every year of my life, I have spent the month of December in great anticipation leading up to December 24th. Our family traditions are filled with food, fun and love. There are the gifts, too, of course, but as an adult, those don’t play quite as big a role as they did when I was a child. Another thing that’s changed over the years is that I’ve stopped having expectations about the big day. While it might seem difficult to draw the distinction between anticipation and expectation, I’ve found them to be vastly different.
Anticipation is the excitement I feel when I think about an upcoming event. Whether it’s a holiday or a vacation or the release of my new book, I find that when I think about these things in a general sense, a wave of happy, positive emotion washes over me. Even planning the details – what food I’ll bring to the Christmas Eve party; which sights we’ll see on our trip; which book stores I’ll do readings and signings at – brings me a sense of excitement and joy.
Expectations, on the other hand, tend to be overly specific. They consist largely of imagined outcomes for future events that cannot really be seen. While expectations can seem like a good thing at the time I’m formulating them, I’ve found that they tend to make the enjoyment of the actual experiences, well, less enjoyable. Even when an experience is wonderful, if it doesn’t match the picture I’ve been formulating in my mind, or meet the checklist of characteristics I’ve created, then it somehow falls flat.
This week, I encourage you to practice anticipation without expectation. Think less about the particulars of your holiday events and more about the surroundings, the people and the emotions. Try to get excited without plotting out all the details in your mind. For example you can know that your favorite dinner will be served and anticipate that without imagining how it will taste – leave that for a delicious surprise to savor at the actual moment you taste it.
This can work the other way, too. Maybe the holidays put you in contact with people you’d rather not be stuck in a room with. If you expect those interactions to go badly, they almost certainly will. If, however, you allow that anything might happen, it’s possible that something good will.
By letting go of expectations, you give yourself the chance to be surprised and delighted by the things that actually happen, rather than comparing them against a mental template that was probably not entirely realistic in the first place.