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Credit: Ana Glassman

A little over three months ago, I triumphantly wrote a column asking Penn students to tear off their masks and embrace their friends after getting their vaccine. Given the information I had at the time about the vaccines, I assumed the pandemic was winding down, and that “normalcy” was on the horizon.

And it was, for a brief period of time. I took off my mask nearly everywhere. I visited my friends and I traveled across the country for the first time in more than a year. But given recent increases in the Delta variant and the possibility of breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated individuals, everything, once again, seems to be upended. We’re required to wear masks again on campus, and, while our classes still seem to be in-person for now, other universities have already reverted back to a virtual environment. In other words, we really have no idea what the next few weeks will bring.

The common theme of the pandemic thus far has been uncertainty. We rarely know what the next phase of the pandemic will be, and this doesn’t sit well with the human brain’s tendency to constantly make predictions about the future. When faced with a piece of information (or lack thereof), our brains give us a number of options of how the future might go. In the era of COVID-19, however, those expectations are almost always dead wrong — just like the expectation of normalcy that I wrote about back in May.

What makes expectation unfortunate, however, is how the brain deals with it ex post facto. After the resolution of uncertainty, our brain compares reality with its prior expectation and generates an emotion. In fact, this has even been observed neurochemically in the context of craving and drug addiction in what is known as the “incentive-sensitization” theory of addiction. According to this model, the brain fires dopamine (the so-called “pleasure” chemical) at the mere expectation of a reward. If that reward is met, dopamine firing remains constant, resulting in a neutral effect. If the reward is surpassed, the brain responds with extra firing, allowing one to feel even better. If the reward is unmet, the brain is punished with a reduction in firing.

In other words, wanting something (or setting an expectation) feels good in and of itself, but a failure to meet that expectation actually makes one feel worse. It’s straightforward enough to understand how this contributes to substance abuse, but it also explains why so many people have struggled so much during the pandemic. We all had certain expectations about our personal, academic, and professional lives in college when we started out — expectations that were certainly not met. Our brains negatively interpret the difference between expectation and reality and give us a neurobiological punch, making us feel like failures. So, how do we break the loop?

The answer is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. All we have to do is eliminate all expectations. By letting go of expectations (and therefore, letting go of our attachment to the future), we deny our brains the opportunity to dictate when we feel joy. Instead, we experience life as it is, without the constant rollercoaster of alternating fear and excitement. When something unfortunate happens, we don’t have to see it as a failure to meet expectations, we can instead see it as a moment that simply unfolded in our lives, and one that we can deal with as it arrives.

The next few weeks and months have a lot coming — more cases, more vaccines, and more news. We can’t control what happens, but we can control how we set our expectations. If we enter this semester with a preconceived notion of how it will be, we are sure to be disappointed. But if we enter the semester with the simple gratitude of being on campus with our friends, we can be pleased with however it turns out to be — no matter what.

VARUN SARASWATHULA is a deputy opinion editor and a College senior studying neuroscience from Herndon, Va. His email is saraswathula@thedp.com.

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