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by H. Steven Moffic, MD

Although psychiatry had traditionally focused on the mentally troubled and the troubling aspects of people, there has been a movement toward a more positive psychology and psychiatry in recent years. Perhaps that approach can have significant mental health benefits during these times of losses and risks.

Memorial Day just passed, the day that we honor fallen soldiers. For many, the sadness of that day was exacerbated by the deaths of about 100,000 in what our government has called the current “war” against the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, there probably were moments of joy during the holiday and before. Sometimes, unexpected ones, I would assume, both if you have to stay at home or if you are doing essential work.

Family joys

One of our family’s unexpected joys has been to play the online game called PSYCH!, almost nightly with one of our children’s family. Initiated by our 15-year-old granddaughter, peels of laughter and moments of insight into each other are common. Here’s one example item that was at my expense: Invent a great middle name for Hey-Hey (what my eldest grandchild named me). My actual middle name, as you may have seen, is Steven, but here are some of the “better” ones invented by my family: Donald, hoohoo, opinner, pig, and don’t think about it (a long middle name, but my typical psychiatric advice to the family as they recall it).

Our other children’s family in Chicago brought us joy in surprise visits. We do try to social distance and eat outdoors, though love tends to compromise our best intentions.

Planning for the future

As I quoted the Rolling Stones in my last blog, sometimes when you can’t get want you want, you get what you need. My wife and I had been so fortunate as to have signed on to be on an educational tour of Istanbul, Turkey, and parts of Greece. Of course, it was cancelled. Instead, I wrote an imaginary heroic journey of the trip, day by day, which has brought its own joy of creativity without any risks. Colloquially, that is called making lemonade out of lemons.

Perhaps by now, many have found everyday sources of joy that we took for granted. For me, that has included seeing the sun shining radiantly on our towering birch trees, as if I was seeing them alive for the very first time.

This sort of positive approach can be applied to the future in many ways, For example, for the projected future of my wife and me, one of the things I have been planning for us to do is to take off from one of our favorite pieces of music, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and, in particular, the innovative choral “Ode to Joy” at its end.

What I started to do back in April is to find out wherever this piece was to be performed in the United States, mainly within driving distance and plan short trips there and back. However, already two have been cancelled, in Chicago and Kansas in June, but more are still planned for the fall. If they do occur, and we are healthy enough, whenever we drive, we can also play the compact discs of different symphonies playing the piece that I have collected. In the night at the hotel, we could read more about the symphony in the articles and books I have collected, too. I wonder, though. Can you overdose on joy?

Of course, all the rest of these could be cancelled for physical distancing if there is a second wave of the virus. However, according to sound research and my own experience, planning can bring as much joy, if not sometimes more, than the actual travel. There is a French verb for the happiness engendered by anticipation: se rejouir, which means to “capture the experience of deriving enjoyment in the present from anticipating the future.”

Lessons from prisoners of war

Probably the most extreme example of stay at “home” guidelines is prisoners of war. Here, too, one of the techniques that often helps psychological coping is planning for the future, for a hopeful reunion with loved ones and what you can do together. Nelson Mandela wrote about that in his autobiography after spending many, many years in prison during apartheid in South Africa. He said that helped him cope, even though his reunion with his wife Winnie didn’t work out after he got out. Our country’s most famous prisoner of war, John McCain, spent five and a half years in captivity in North Vietnam, and one of his techniques, connected to his circumstance, was to try imagine what our country should do differently in the future in the area of foreign affairs.

Good and bad applications

One person’s joy can also be another’s sorrow, so there is a moral dimension to what is chosen. Although Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was designated as the official anthem for the European Union in 1985, it was also used by Nazi leadership to inspire the Germans when they were conquering most of Europe in World War II.

Sometimes we need help to find joys. Help your family, your place of work, and your patients to find theirs. Breaking guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing does not need to be the way to do so. Whatever actually happens in the future, hope and the imagining of future joys will help the present.

May 2020

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