Something to Look forward to
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Since moving to the Sierra foothills after living my whole life in Southern California, I can relate better to the gloomy days of winter, the bitter cold, rain, and ice of harsher weather locales. As I scrape ice off my windshield in the morning, don a hat and gloves just to walk to the mailbox, or wipe up the mud and water brought in by the dogs, I remind myself of the approaching winter solstice. I’m anticipating it as a turning point toward the renewal (and warmer days!) of spring.
The Northern Hemisphere will experience its shortest day this year (2022) on December 21. This date marks the winter solstice, which falls on the 21st or 22nd each year. From this day, sunlight hours start to increase. If the holiday hoopla or inclement weather is getting you down, you have something to look forward to: spring.
Something to look forward to: Anticipation is good for you
We don’t need a study to confirm that we enjoy looking forward to something good, but with today’s sophisticated brain imagery, we can learn the inner workings of why. One study from 2017 examined brain activity when participants thought of a positive, upcoming event. MRI scans showed increased bilateral medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) action, which was associated with increased well-being.
With that knowledge, anyone can make a regular practice of finding something good in their future (something to look forward to). For instance, on a rainy day, I can look out the window and imagine spring. Thinking about the emerging flowers, the birds busy building nests, and the red fox squirrels’ fluffy tails shaking as they squabble over who gets what tree, activates the well-being parts of my mind—and it’s free. Pagan religious beliefs aside, I imagine it was the same for those in ancient cultures who built monuments where sacred stones, blocks, and windows captured and highlighted sunlight at the exact moment of the solstice. They must have been looking forward to spring.
You may know some of these monuments such as Stonehenge and Machu Picchu, but lesser-known ones exist around the world. I’ve included a few links to more information at the end of this article for anyone who’s interested. Even in modern times, people have created structures to highlight the winter and summer solstice. The Getty Library in Los Angeles, California, built in 1997, includes a window to capture the summer solstice and shine upon a plate in the floor. In Utah, an art project by Nancy Holt called “Sun Tunnels” is arranged to highlight the winter and summer solstice.
A brighter future ahead
Especially during holiday times, when it’s easy to let our minds slip into darker thoughts of who or what we no longer have or enjoy in our lives, it helps to shift focus to something we can better control. For me, that often means studying plants, deciding how I’ll arrange new ones in the garden, or what seeds I might like to try. In that way, considering all the varieties of trailing amaranth, learning how I might start the seeds early indoors or sow them directly into the big planters I’ll fill with colorful canna lilies or some other tall plant, becomes purposeful activity toward a positive outcome or event. And envisioning a “brighter future” creates a stronger sense of personal meaning and purpose in life. That’s important for everyone, and especially as we age. I talk more specifically about adapting as we age, and finding life meaning is a part of that, in my book, Beyond Done.
Something to look forward to: Your turn
What are you looking forward to? How can you cultivate meaning in the coming days, weeks, months, or years? Take a few moments to consider what you can look forward to, plan for, and enjoy even now. In that way, your “brighter future” becomes a gift in the present.
Luo Y, Chen X, Qi S, You X, Huang X. Well-being and anticipation for future positive events: evidences from an fmri study. Front Psychol. 2018;8:2199.
van Tilburg WAP, Igou ER. Dreaming of a brighter future: anticipating happiness instills meaning in life. J Happiness Stud. 2019;20(2):541-559.