BRIAN JOSEPH: On the joy and importance of small pleasures during COVID –

COVID has changed our world. In most regards, it has caused great harm, including economic devastation and death not seen since the Second World War.

But perhaps surprisingly, it has also provided the valuable opportunity to examine many old assumptions and practices governing the way we work, travel and relate to others.

And to ourselves.

Not for nothing has much attention turned to the dangerous and still weakly documented health effects of social distancing, of isolation and of loneliness. Ahead of the curve in this area, Great Britain appointed a federal Minister for Loneliness after their National Health Service documented and quantified the very devastating cost of loneliness for personal health, and for the national budget.

In many quarters, including our Atlantic provinces' daily papers, we are now seeing a renewed interest in the mental health effects of social isolation. Progressive public health researchers have known for many decades that the chief determinants of a person's health and of the well-being of the general population have relatively little to do with the chemical concoctions heavily promoted by Big Pharma.

In fact, our health normally depends very greatly on the quality and quantity of our human connections, on the safety and satisfaction of our work, on the quality of our food and the quantity of our exercise, recreation and hobby activities. (In emergencies like the current COVID epidemic, nothing replaces an effective vaccine!)

With the approaching Christmas season now threatening to be something of a Scrooge's delight on the socializing front, attention has rightly been turning to alternative ways to make merry. And here a little big-picture history might assist us.

It has taken about 500 years for many northern countries in the West to work through the general prohibition on pleasure that was a central aspect of the well-intentioned Reformers of the 16th century in Switzerland, Germany, Scotland and elsewhere.

At that time, live theatre, visual arts, recreational games, popular music and dancing were widely prohibited.

Thus, anthropologists and sociologists have never been tempted to label the strongest preserves of Reformer Puritanism, as hotspots of hedonism, pleasure or party fun. One of my Harvard professors wryly defined Puritanism as the lingering suspicion that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time! Indeed, we have to go all the way back to Englishman Thomas More in the 15th century to rediscover the kind of wholesome enjoyment of sensual pleasure that was for a very long time strongly discouraged as a result of the changes brought by the Reformation to Europe.

Now, in the bleak circumstances of our own day, it is truly time to rediscover the joy of pleasure, and the importance of pleasure for our mental and physical health.

With COVID threatening to be the Grinch that stole Christmas, we need to fight back against the gloom of these short, dark days and the widespread distress and death from the virus by finding new joys and renewing old ones.

Many will find themselves separated from loved ones this Christmas against their will. Here, the new means of communication such as FaceTime, Facebook, Zoom and Skype may help, if available. But perhaps nothing beats the low-tech telephone call. The sound of the human voice can work wonders. And what better time to reach out to family, friends, lost contacts, or schoolmates?

Now, everyone has an excuse, if needed: I was thinking about you and just wanted to check how youre doing with all this COVID stuff that's happening. These phone calls are especially important for our seniors living in painful isolation in long-term care homes.

Mother Nature has wired our bodies with many sensors to detect pain and pleasure. And at a very basic level, the best antidote to distress and pain is pleasure. They need not be expensive or large pleasures, but hopefully they can be safe pleasures.

There will be very few trips to Florida this year or cruises south, even for those able to afford them. But almost everyone has a favourite sweet treat! Even my most reserved friends will confess to liking some form of chocolate. (The medicinal effects of chocolate cry out for more research!)

New artistic pursuits, new languages, or new musical instruments are great candidates for joy and pleasure, even in isolation or quarantine. A good book, a good movie, a good online connection also have great therapeutic values.

For many Atlantic Canadians on the COVID frontlines in hospitals, schools and grocery stores, physical rest itself may be one of the seasons sweetest pleasures. For those with a traditional religious faith, few things have a more powerful beneficial effect than prayer. When we feel joy, our cells smile, and our endocrine system shouts ALLELUIA!

And for those looking for other fulfilling pleasures, they may find the advice for safe sex given by the New York City Department of Public Health at the height of the epidemic of interest, amusement or assistance. (The guidance offered New Yorkers by their Department of Public Health for safe sex during the worst ravages of the epidemic may be found here.)

Wherever the search for pleasure takes us, if safely done, it can be an adventure in rediscovering the natural ability of our bodies to refresh our spirits, bring a smile and create wellness and joy. Enjoying safe pleasure is a wisdom of the body that for too long has been repressed in the harried lifestyle of an urbanized, industrialized and the still somewhat Puritan culture of the West.

This year, perhaps more than at any time since the war years or the Great Depression of the 1930s, we need and deserve, a fulsome and wholesome immersion in healthy pleasures, large and small!

May the old carol ring true in your hearts this Christmas: God rest ye Merry Gentlemen ( and Gentlewomen!)

Heres wishing you and yours a safe and joy-filled holiday season!

Brian Joseph, a graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and Harvard, pursues safe pleasures in North Sydney where he continues his lifelong sociological studies of Western culture.


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