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Anticipation Is Part of Being a Fan, and That’s a Good Thing

Looking forward to positive experiences benefits mental health and well-being.

Key points

  • Anticipating positive events is associated with a sense of well-being and mental health benefits.
  • The pleasurable release of dopamine in the brain happens when we expect good outcomes in the future.
  • Anticipation is a big part of being a fan, whether it's waiting for the next episode of a favorite show, a new album release, or the Super Bowl.
  • In stressful times, such as a pandemic, anticipation can help us maintain a sense of well-being and sustain mental health.

Anticipation is a psychological process we engage in to mentally prepare for a certain outcome that we expect to happen in the future. Anticipating future events happens automatically, taking place largely in the oldest part of the brain, the cerebellum. Our minds are wired for anticipation; we evolved to have the capacity to form accurate expectations about the future so we could make better predictions about it. That ability allowed humans to take advantage of experiences that benefit us and avoid ones that would be dangerous, increasing the chance of survival.

As anyone who has ever engaged in anticipating a future event knows, anticipation is more than a cognitive process. Strong emotions attached to our expectations motivate us to be accurate in our predictions and reinforce us when we anticipate correctly.

Anticipation and the Brain

Most people tend to imagine positive events in their future. When an individual anticipates something good happening, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, resulting in positive feelings and decreased painful ones, along with increased arousal and excitement that can also feel good. Dopamine plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system, helping us learn to repeat positive events and avoid aversive ones. We all tend to seek out more pleasure from life, so people seek out experiences that result in the brain's releasing more dopamine. Both the positive experience itself and the anticipation of that experience can produce feelings of euphoria that individuals repeatedly seek out.

Anticipating positive events has been shown to have mental health benefits. In the last several years, functional MRI studies have shown that anticipation of future positive events resulted in enhanced brain activation that was associated with higher levels of well-being. The researchers concluded that anticipating good things is associated with experiencing positive emotion, which in turn benefits mental health.

"I Can't Wait For...": Anticipation and Fandom

Being a fan is, for many people, a source of repeated positive experiences. Becoming a fan has often been compared to falling in love, because it can produce similar emotions of euphoria and a strong desire to see or interact with the celebrity or media or activity in some way. Euphoric emotions can result from any kind of contact, whether that’s watching a new film or listening to a live concert or getting a celebrity’s autograph or seeing a favorite sports team play. Seemingly inconsequential events, such as a new Instagram post or news story or a new episode of a television series airing, can be a source of joy for fans. Not just the event itself, but the anticipation of those kinds of positive experiences, brings a surge of dopamine.

Fortunately for fans, the feeling of anticipation is an integral part of the fandom experience. Whether you’re a fan of a celebrity or a television show or a band or a football team, the rewards of fandom can be powerful, but they are often few and far between. Counting the days until the next live concert can produce months of anticipation, with every day crossed off on the calendar bringing another burst of dopamine. Waiting for a new episode of a favorite television show or anticipating a new album release brings a similarly pleasurable experience. Fans eagerly await the next Star Wars installment, the next book release by a favorite author, or the next ComicCon or Super Bowl. Even relatively minor fandom-related events can be something to look forward to, from the night a celebrity makes an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel to BTS performing live on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

In a very active fandom in which there may be constant new content, those surges can happen daily, whereas in an established fandom they can be less frequent. The fandom community, however, creates its own new content in between events in the form of new fan fiction, art, videos, contests, memes, and TikTok posts. There is anticipation around the expectation of these kinds of positive experiences as well.

When It's Time to Move On

As long as the anticipated experience itself remains rewarding when it finally happens, the cycle of anticipation can help us get through stressful times like a pandemic. But what happens when that long-anticipated experience, when it finally happens, doesn’t produce the kind of euphoria it once did?

Our minds use past experiences to predict future ones and to help us be prepared for them. If a fan’s enthusiasm for a book or film or television show begins to wane, the experience of finally reading the new installment or seeing the new movie does not result in the expected dopamine release, resulting in a process known as a "negative prediction error." In fact, there may be even less dopamine released than usual on these occasions because the individual is disappointed and feels let down. That never feels good to us as humans, and people will look for ways to replicate those earlier dopamine surges that brought so much pleasure.

If there is repeated disappointment, the pleasure that the fan derived from anticipation wanes as well. That is often when an individual finds a new fandom to join and a new film, series, book, band, or team to love. Unlike personal relationships, there’s no downside to moving on from one fandom to another, or to retaining a lifelong affection for Star Wars but also falling in love with the latest Marvel movie.

Find Something to Look Forward to

As we begin a third year of dealing with a global pandemic, finding ways to experience joy and pleasure can help us get through difficult times and retain some sense of optimism. Anticipating positive experiences sustains the release of dopamine and produces feelings of happiness, giving people a respite from the negative emotions produced by reading the latest news of Covid 19 numbers or dealing with the personal impact of the pandemic. For fans, anticipating that next episode, movie, concert, or game—or just the next photo or tweet or Instagram post from a favorite celebrity—can be a helpful way to navigate the ups and downs of a world dealing with continued real-life challenges and to sustain a sense of well-being.

References

Luo, Y., Chen, X., Qi, S., You, X., & Huang, X. (2018). Well-being and anticipation for future positive events: Evidence from an fMRI study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2199.

Schultz, W. (2016). Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 18(1), 23–32.

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