Merriam-Webster Online’s definition, in pertinent part: “1a : a prior action that takes into account or forestalls a later action b : the act of looking forward; especially : pleasurable expectation 3a : visualization of a future event or state.”
I think there’s positive anticipation (PA), as in definition 3a, but also negative anticipation (NA). When you have PA, you’re looking forward to something you think will be good, fun: a romantic date, a vacation or spa visit. PA could also be the payoff of a goal you’ve worked toward: the release of your book, opening night of a play you’re in.
With NA, the approaching event is likely to be unpleasant or something you wish you could avoid: a medical procedure or an unwelcome or unfamiliar project at work. For some, NA might even include giving a speech (often first on lists of top fears). A big portion of NA is fear. Maybe we believe that by worrying about what’s to come, we can prepare ourselves for the worst.
The problem with even good anticipation is that you’re not living in the moment…you’re living in the unknowable, unpredictable future. While PA may make you smile and inspire pleasurable feelings, on some level it’s an avoidance of whatever is happening right now. Too much PA might raise expectations that reality doesn’t meet. Instead of enjoying the event, you could end up disappointed. “What if…” may help many writers with plots, but in real life too much of it may not be a good thing.
Of course some preparation is important. Most of us wouldn’t want to go on that big date without figuring out where we’re going. In Chicago, not making a dinner reservation or buying theatre tickets ahead of time could put quite a damper on things. Nor would most of us agree to undergo many medical procedures without researching providers and options.
The key, I think, is to control anticipation and not let it control you. Consider: 1) Not letting NA, often fear of the unknown, paralyze you from moving forward or keep you from trying new things. 2) Don’t allow PA to build up so much that an approaching event takes on a meaning or importance out of proportion, or that’s unlikely to be reached by what actually happens.
Be the kid who can enjoy whatever birthday gift she receives, not the kid who’s worried she won’t get what she wants or only wanted a pony and refuses to be happy with anything else.