A variety of emotions and thoughts often accompany waiting. Emotionally, waiting can sometimes be characterized by anticipation, anxiety, excitement, frustration, annoyance, boredom, and even calmness, peace, or serenity. In terms of thoughts, waiting might involve thoughts about the event that you’re waiting for, why it’s taking so long to occur, when it might occur, what it might mean when it happens, and so forth. When you’re waiting for a root canal, you might be riddled with worry thoughts about pain and suffering, whereas when you’re waiting for a promotion at work, to get married, or to have children, you might be thinking about how your life will be different once these events occur. And, you might also have worry thoughts about all of the work that being married, having more responsibility at work, and caring for children might entail. Indeed, nature appears to abhor a vacuum; thus, when there is space and time to wait for something, our minds will often fill the gap with a variety of thoughts and feelings. Again, as mentioned last time, waiting can involve a lot of activity!
Another interesting thing about waiting is that waiting and getting what you’re waiting for seem to be two different things. I read recently that the neural mechanisms underlying wanting and enjoying what you get can be quite different. How does this relate to waiting? Well, unless you’re waiting for something painful (see above re: route canal), you likely want what you’re waiting for. Liking what you get can be considered how pleasurable you find it to receive what you’ve been wanting/waiting for. Dopamine (a complex neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, reward, movement, etc.) is one of the neurotransmitters in the brain involved in wanting, but its involvement in pleasure and liking seems to be quite complex. At the level of everyday experience, there are many things we want and wait for and then find to be quite different than we thought they’d be. Think of what it’s like to wait for the bus. Once the bus comes, you might feel a degree of pleasure in the form of relief that you are one step closer to where you’re going, but I’m guessing that relief is short lived. Once you get on the bus, you need to jostle for a seat, avoid the person who is vomiting, dodge flying elbows, fumble around for your transit card, and so on. Catching the bus is quite different from waiting for the bus. Waiting for major life events can also be very different from experiencing major life events. Before I got tenure, tenure was a huge, big deal. When I got it, I was proud and happy (and somewhat relieved), but it ceased to be a big deal. The Zen masters sometimes say the same thing about enlightenment. Before you experience it, it’s a big deal; once you experience it, you just kind of say “OK” and go back to doing your laundry. More on this next time. -Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.