Leah Hager Cohen: I’m pretty sure the blueprint for my addiction got established in childhood. (wiccked/flickr)

I am an addict. I’ve never admitted this to anyone before, although it’s been going on for as long as I remember. I’m pretty sure the blueprint for my addiction got established in childhood. What I’m hooked on is anticipation, the notion of something splendid shimmering on the horizon.

It needn’t be anything huge, like an overseas voyage or a gala affair. It could be as modest as a walk around the pond with a friend, or a new recipe I’m looking forward to preparing for my family. It could even be the daily mail, regardless of whether or not I’m expecting anything. The thrill lies in the ritual: in hearing the sloppy thunk that means the postman has shoved the mail through the slot, in descending the stairs wondering what I’ll find.

Okay, as addictions go, this isn’t the worst. But when I lack that shimmering something on the horizon, when there’s nothing I’m consciously looking forward to, I get out of sorts. I can’t shake the sense that something’s not quite right with the world; I feel sluggish and vaguely morose, in need of a fix.

When there’s nothing I’m consciously looking forward to, I get out of sorts… I feel sluggish and vaguely morose, in need of a fix.

I had occasion to look hard at this vice within myself recently. The catalyst was a story a friend told about some friends of hers. This couple was trying to get their toddler out of diapers. As incentive for using the potty, whenever the little boy sat on it and produced, his parents would reward him with his favorite treat: a handful of cheddar crackers in the shape of bunnies. My friend described how adorable it is to see him, upon finishing his task, display excitement about what’s to come. She described how his parents would stoke his anticipation: What comes now… What does Toby get? and how the little boy would beam and wriggle in burgeoning anticipation until he could hardly contain himself. Clearly, the story was meant to charm. Yet I found it made me uncomfortable.

Years ago, my youngest child attended a preschool run by a wisely loving woman. What a quiet place it was. I don’t mean the children were quiet — they sang, chattered, laughed, shouted and cried just as you would expect. It was the rhythm of the place that was quiet, the sameness of the weeks’ structure, the low key way that activities were introduced. Each day the children helped prepare snack from scratch, and the days of the week were marked by an unvarying rotation: Monday, rice; Tuesday, soup; Wednesday, applesauce; Thursday, bread; Friday, porridge. If a new plaything came into the school (squares of colored silk for dress-ups, bales of hay for outdoor play), it was unheralded by fuss or fanfare. If a child expressed enthusiasm about some event coming up in her life, her excitement would be acknowledged with gentle equanimity, not mirrored back at twice its natural size.

In the beginning I found this dearth of animation surprising, even a bit dour. But soon I came to see not only how it lent the school a profound air of peacefulness, in which each moment has equal value, no matter how plain or dazzling according to common standards — I came to realize as well how good it felt to me, how tranquil and content and strangely nourished I felt every time I came to drop off or pick up my child.

I had only to step over the threshold and gone was my persistent hunger for something tantalizing on the horizon. Gone was my need for some future promise that could make the humdrum present palatable. In fact, I noticed the present was not actually humdrum. I saw how the pattern of anticipation and reward learned in childhood becomes an endlessly unfulfilling cycle in which neither the present nor the future is capable of delivering gratification, and the desire for anticipation always returns to gnaw.

The pattern of anticipation and reward learned in childhood becomes an endlessly unfulfilling cycle in which neither the present nor the future is capable of delivering gratification…

Now I understood why my friend’s story saddened me. I suspect that the cheddar bunnies quickly lost their power to completely satisfy the little potty-training boy, and that he learned to crave recurrences of the whipped-up anticipatory frisson his parents created for him with such evident pleasure.

This is hardly meant to point the finger at those parents. Just as the blueprint was instilled in me, I am sure I have unwittingly instilled a similar blueprint in my own children. And of course we live in a culture that whips us up relentlessly, a society whose very economic well-being has become famously reliant on keeping its citizens in a state of constant, mindless desire — a recipe for unhappiness whose cure cannot simply be unhooking ourselves from materialism, for the pattern goes deeper than commodity hunger.

In fact, the cure might be learning a new kind of materialism, a materialism of the present, in which we find worth in cloth and hay, applesauce and porridge, soil and snowflakes and skin. How grateful I am, as I continue to work on unlearning my attachment to anticipation, that I was once exposed to that special school where the routines were quiet and steady, and the children were encouraged not to wriggle for the future but to immerse themselves fully in the moment at hand.


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  • lilee

    I’m reading PATCH? I’ve noted a pattern–especially from mothers–who submit these articles (PATCH is famous for them–an actual franchise of them.) that some how try to find the profound in popsicles. Here it’s literally Cheezits or something. It is ubiquitous, predictable, risk less writing. Isn’t ”Cognoscenti” supposed to be more than what PATCH offers us? Or are we to expect the politically correct POV’s on matters like women in the military, mom’s who worry that they sent in from scratch cup cakes to school but, oh no, forgot about the new ”healthy snacks rules,” etc.–the usual gutless material found everywhere.

    • Icee

      Perhaps instead of critiquing the thinking and writing of others, you should contribute something yourself here or elsewhere? There is nothing more banal than potshots in a comments section.

  • Justin Locke

    The article makes a valid point, and it’s fair for someone in this venue to talk about a problem without offering an official solution. My two cents: Yes, “we live in a culture that whips us up relentlessly . . . keeping its citizens in a state of constant, mindless desire” . . . But what we often fail to notice is that part of the whipping up procedure is making the target audience feel that what they currently have, and who they currently are, is no good. After all, to quote one of my own characters, “happy people don’t buy things, because they are happy with what they’ve got.” It’s not so much about “living in the moment.” One must also recognize just how much work is being done to make you unhappy in the moment. More than half of the ads we see start with the message, “There is something very wrong with you or your world,” and that includes everything from your current elected official to your dandruff. In my most recent book I argue that true “wealth,” and want we truly want, is a sense of connection. If we are lacking that, we look for rituals or material things that can act as a substitute. –jl

    • Icee

      Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs came to mind when reading your response. I think the type of “connection” you’re talking about aligns with “esteem” and being “happy with what [you’ve] got” falls into “self-actualization.” Marketers have known about this for decades.

      • Justin Locke

        Well funny you should mention Maslow. It’s my contention that people will give up his first two levels in order to get to levels 3 & 4.

        • Icee

          Absolutely! Baumeister’s work on willpower talks a little about this, though I don’t remember him speaking specifically of Maslow. Anyway, we see it all the time. Some people scoff at those who collect government assistance when they buy expensive sneakers with their limited resources. What most people don’t realize is that those on a limited budget are probably suffering on a much more basic level. The yearning to fit in and be respected overwhelms one’s ability to make “good” decisions for one’s own well-being.

          • Justin Locke

            Yes, and in fact I have just written a book about this very issue. Money is more than a measure of dollars, it is an expression of emotion, and poverty is more than just lack of cash (in fact there are some poor people who have lots of cash, and they just can’t bear to spend it). When you aren’t getting what you “want”. . . (and that includes all sorts of things like status, acceptance, safety, justice, connection, etc.), one can be easily talked into spending money on various compensatory substitutes. And getting back to the article, it is oh so easy, when one is lacking some basic emotional sustenance, to channel that desire into something else, deferring its satisfaction into the future. Common problem.

  • Carl Hays

    Today as I started yet another Saturday that felt to me no different than Friday or the previous Tuesday for that matter, I did notice something odd.

    I was about to start my home workout, which begins by me playing the respective video that I follow while doing each exercise. Right before I started, I checked my phone to see if I had any new email or messages, and then poured a glass of water.

    As I was about to start the video, a thought came across my mind that I was addicted to anticipation.

    I had to sit down and think it through to examine the validity of it all.

    As I thought back over my life, I realized that this feeling also started for me at a very early age, such as…

    The anticipation of going to K-Mart after church.

    The anticipation of being taken up in my father’s airplane.

    The anticipation of going to DisneyWorld once a year.

    The anticipation of moving to a new state/city/house/school (this one happened multiple times).

    There were many more examples that came to mind, but what I found most troubling about it all is that I now create anticipation in my life, constantly.

    I order things off Amazon, but what I really love is the anticipation of the delivery.

    I move when I notice that the new place no longer makes me excited with anticipation in getting to know the geography, people and places that surround it.

    I buy a new car when I no longer feel excited about getting to drive it.

    I’ve even caught myself doing it in relationships, but perhaps not to the same extent nor in the same ways.

    So now that I’ve discovered that this is probably the single biggest problem I face in my life, how do I rid myself of it, or diminish its effects on me?

    The mere thought of removing anticipation scares me because it’s the driving force behind almost EVERYTHING I do or choose to do. Therefore, with what would I replace it that would produce the same sort of motivation to make positive changes in my life?

    Am I lacking in dopamine? Could me being single have something do with it? Perhaps I use anticipation to fill-in for loneliness (not that I *feel* lonely, but I *am* alone most of the time).

    I don’t expect you or anyone else to have answers to these questions, but I simply wanted to share them in an attempt to see if anyone else connects to these statements or has perhaps gone through something similar themselves.