Anticipation, a feeling named by economics

Anticipation: the sweet, impatient excitement that precedes an event yet to occur. It courses through our veins standing in the concert line, prompting our imagination to run wild as we try to picture the wonders of the imminent performance. It is an almost feverish prospect of the great things that are about to happen.

It turns out that the feeling is secretly related to economics; the dismal science named the emotion. Not an infrequent linguistic phenomenon, a concept from a sphere of knowledge may end up coining a term belonging to another field, granted that the ideas bear some similarity. That is precisely the mechanism at work in the evolution of the word “anticipation”.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the main definition of the term referred to a sum of money spent before it was fully earned. For instance, an advance on a worker’s next wage. By getting paid before the absolute completion of the salary’s contractual obligations, the employee had the chance to spend what he did not yet own. They could live better off as a consequence of a future situation (the payment at the end of the agreed work period).

In a similar fashion, our current understanding of “anticipation”, that is, the emotional term, describes a pleasure obtained by the mere idea of an event that is still to happen. Hence the parallel to the economic definition, as if the actual event were the total payoff and the prior anticipation its self-administered advanced payment, reallocating joy from the future to our present, when we are still waiting for the hopeful event. As David Hume put it, “anticipation of pleasure is, in itself, a very considerable pleasure”.

Nowadays, the economic use of the word has nearly faded, its main meaning currently being the discussed emotion. Today, money given beforehand goes by “advances”. Nevertheless, “anticipation” can still be seen in the name of some financial instruments, such as “anticipation notes” (short-term obligations issued under the assumption that future cash flows will repay them).

Not only is this connection between economics and emotions interesting, but also insightful. On the one hand, it goes to show that economics is such an ubiquitous force in human life, so much so that it makes sense for some of its concepts to infect our psychology and the way we express ourselves. On the other hand, it may shed some light on the approach some people have to anticipation. If that pleasure could be quantified and split between the present and the future, following the previous parallel,  that gratification could be thought of as monetary units. As such, anticipation could be budgeted, and conservative budgeting attitudes would extend themselves to anticipation management. This could partially explain why some parents try to teach their children not to indulge their excitement about the future, or why adults try to rationalize their expectations about what they are enthusiastic about: he who does not spend what he does not yet own, will not be disappointed when tomorrow comes.

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