The Thrill of Anticipation vs. the Risk of Expectations

Do you like to travel? For me, it’s a sure source of joy. I love seeing new places, experiencing new things, and meeting new people. I daydream about places I want to go constantly.

And when we have an actual trip on the books and I get to make plans for it? Oh, that’s heaven to me. I just read a happiness tip that recommended booking your trips months in advance, because studies have shown that people are happiest when they’re anticipating a vacation. That makes total sense to me.

We are headed on a family trip to Europe in just a couple of weeks, and I’m beside myself with anticipatory excitement.  I haven’t been there since before our 13-year-old son was born, so I’m really looking forward to going back. Plus, I can’t wait to share the fun with my son. He loves to travel like I do, and this will be the first time he’s been out of the country. I’m having such a good time poring over guidebooks and making lists of possible sights to see and restaurants to try. There are so many options to choose from and so many new experiences waiting to be savored.

This is all marvelous. However, sometimes I can enjoy the anticipation of what’s to come more than the actual trips. In my imagination, everything is perfect. There are no travel delays, no rain, no frustrations. But the reality of a trip often includes at least one of those. And occasionally, because the reality conflicts with my too-high expectations, it can cause me to feel more upset than the situation really warrants.

I’ve been reading Wake Up to the Joy of You by Agapi Stassinopoulos (which I highly recommend—it’s a lovely book) and I recently read a chapter titled “Finding Grace in Disappointment.” She discusses how we can set ourselves up for disappointment with our expectations. She says, “Fundamentally, we are wired by human nature to have expectations. You want things to work out a certain way, your way. You plan and imagine the desired outcome and attach your own fantasies to the experience. You tell yourself stories about how things should happen, and when the reality does not match, you feel let down and experience a loss of energy.”

This certainly happens to me on trips, or even any big event. I’ll picture what it will be like, and if it doesn’t match my expectations, I’ll feel let down. This can happen even if the actual experience is nice, which is a shame. I’m cheating myself out of full enjoyment that way. 

Stassinopoulos suggests that the way to avoid this is to become more present with what is really happening, rather than getting lost in wishful thinking. If we don’t go into something with a preconceived notion of how it will be, but rather we go in openly and with curiosity, being present for whatever unfolds, we can enjoy that without judgment.

I love this idea, and want to approach my upcoming trip in that spirit. But I want to eat my cake and have it too—I enjoy reading guidebooks and sifting through restaurant recommendations way too much to go completely plan-free. Instead, I will make plans, but I won’t decide in advance how the experience will go. I won’t set a high bar of expectations.

My husband likes to travel without much advance planning, which can make me uncomfortable. I definitely need the security of knowing I have a confirmed place to sleep each night! But I’ll admit, the times when we’ve just rolled into a town and “sniffed out” a good place to eat or something fun to do have usually turned out wonderfully. Plus, there’s a specific feeling of accomplishment when you discover something that’s off the beaten path.

Traveling in that way can really broaden our horizons.  Exploring uncharted territory and enjoying (or surviving!) unexpected adventures—this often results in some of the best experiences (and funniest stories). On this upcoming trip, I intend to leave room for those types of happy surprises.

I will also make every attempt to leave my expectations at home, even (or especially) for the parts I do plan in advance. I will “go with the flow” (oh, how this is a challenge for me!) and be present for whatever happens, without judgment.  I think it will result in a richer experience overall. Wish me luck! I will let you know how it goes!

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