I graduate in three months, and as such have lately devoted considerable mental energy to “the next step.” By this I mean my move home to Oregon, the job I will hopefully get, a new house, and so on. I think a certain amount of this is healthy – even necessary. But I also think I spend a gratuitous amount of my life envisioning what things might someday be like.
In my wannabe-Buddhist way, I try very hard to focus on the present, but sometimes find myself building castles in the air at inopportune times, generally dragged back to the present by a looming deadline or the smell of something burning.
Yesterday this phenomenon took name, courtesy of my house guest and friend, Andy Valentine: future-tripping. It was a word he learned in rehab, where it was actively discouraged.
“It was not thought to be a healthy activity to sit around thinking about the future, because no matter how much you think about it, it’s not going to come any quicker,” he says. “It slowed down time and put people into a bad headspace.”
As anyone who is awaiting something important or exciting can tell you, fixating on the future at the expense of the present does certainly seem to have a time-retardant effect.
On the other hand, future-tripping has a time-honored place in the human psyche.
Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, explains that our behavior is driven less by rewards themselves than by the expectation that we will receive them. He describes an experiment with monkeys, in which they are rewarded for pressing a lever in response to a signal. He demonstrated that dopamine (a neurotransmitter that signals pleasure) spikes not when the reward is actually received, but while engaged in the activity associated with its receipt (in this case, lever-pressing).
“Dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure,” Sapolsky said in a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences (watch video here). “It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”
Indeed, the pursuit is so important that when researchers blocked the rise of dopamine in the monkeys’ brains after hearing the signal – shutting down the anticipatory response – they became unwilling to work any longer. The same actions precipitated the same rewards, but without anticipation, the monkeys threw in the towel.
The experiment becomes even more fascinating when researchers added the element of uncertainty – will pressing this lever earn us a treat, or won’t it? It seems that the “maybe” factor makes the sense of anticipation even more intense; not knowing whether something will come true makes the subject work even harder.
“'Maybe' is addictive like nothing else out there,” says Sapolsky.
This says something both interesting and a little dark about the American dream. I’ve always believed that the driving force behind working hard was arrival: getting the job, the raise, the book deal, the girl. But if Sapolsky’s research tells us anything, it is that not having these things is at least as important to success as getting them. Perhaps it isn’t success that gets us all off, but the possibility thereof.
In that sense, my future-tripping may serve a good purpose. Though it seems circuitous and obvious, if I could not derive pleasure from imagining my goals fulfilled, I might never work for them at all.
My friend Andy agrees that the power of expectation is important, but adds a caveat. “I think anticipation can be a motivator, but there’s a fine line between having a goal and just pining needlessly,” he says.
True, true words. If only I could tell the difference.