The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on all of us has produced an understandable longing for a vaccine to end this modern-day plague, and give us our normal lives back. The history of vaccinations is fascinating, beginning with Jenner and smallpox in the late 18th century, and continuing to this moment of intense mobilization to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
This blog will examine a broader concept of vaccination, not by describing the use of a new injection or special oral potion to stimulate and orchestrate antibodies against a toxic invader, but to suggest that through the experience of, and regular activation of resources that resonate inside all of us, increased overall well-being is achieved.
Just as a future COVID -19 vaccine may well become a public health mandate, so too, might recognition and implementation of the importance of regular play “vaccinations” be seen as being as necessary as hand-washing, good nutrition or adequate sleep.
My life experiences in public health matters, first as one who lived his childhood prior to the antibiotic era in the late 30’s and early 40’s, during which I lost my best friend at age 8 to meningitis (no antibiotics then available), and later to see a Polio epidemic in Chicago change the landscape from open play and crowded swimming pools to an almost shelter-at–home living mandate. The Polio vaccine was introduced in 1955. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be alive in the antibiotic and vaccine eras.
Later, while a US Navy physician in San Diego, I got to know the Polio vaccine discoverer Jonas Salk as he built the renowned Salk Institute on Torrey Pines Mesa through the generosity of the March of Dimes philanthropy. After my Navy years, I journeyed elsewhere for further medical and research training, and returned to San Diego and again enjoyed the continuing pleasure and honor of spending more time with him as friend, neighbor and colleague.
The lingering combination of the Salk friendship, (he died in 1995) and his highly personal review of the history of vaccinations, his openness to also finding ways of altering violent or destructive human behaviors, plus my formal post-doctoral medical training, and the many subsequent years of play-based research has recently lead me to broaden the vaccine concept to apply its benefits also to instinctive human and animal behavioral patterns. These patterns, like our ingrained immune system are deeply embedded into our natures, and have survived the ravages of time, plagues, wars and planetary changes. There are genes and physiologic organizers for the immune system that have persisted, but also in our genes and environmental epigenetic proclivities are survival patterns of behavior also, with play being one that is rarely if ever seen as such. (Science demonstrates it to be now so seen and so understood)
So I want to apply these playful life experiences and have them placed in perspective with the current reality of this worldwide pandemic. This is not to downplay COVID-19 and its penetrance and realities into our daily personal lives and worldwide economic and political realities, nor in any way lessen the significance of its devastating mortality and morbidity, but add what I have found through my play studies as an effective counter to the pervasive attitudinal negativities and their consequences that the pandemic has and will continue to produce.
Play exists and has survived for millions of years (like our immune systems) probably because it fosters long-term survival and adaptation to a changing world. Here are just a few of its benefits, these now being more and more objectively solidified by reputable scientific research: trust, mutual attunement, empathy, resilience, adaptability, innovation, creativity, optimism, communal belonging, immune system benefits, sustained intrinsic motivation and the persistent desire to acquire mastery, and more.
As I have emphasized in earlier blogs, play as it is experienced needs to be enjoyed as a “state of being.” These moments of play can be quite different for each of us, depending on the life circumstances, age, culture and more.
Getting oneself and the family into states of play regularly is a necessary vaccination…but does not always require anything more than a playful state of mind. This morning, atypically home-bound due to the pandemic, I watched a replay of Federer win a long-past Wimbledon, and being engaged in its action, my mood and sense of vitality were lifted. My morning play vaccination. Or imagine visiting a beloved but demented grandparent who you musically coached, smiling, into singing “you are my sunshine” as if for the first time. Whenever it is experienced, good things happen to the players.
Getting oneself into this play based different-from-all-others “state of being” is the play vaccination goal. Maybe daily or even hourly. Get there as often as you can, and… What is it that lights your candle? And the well-being benefits despite the pandemics grip on whatever the quality of life will be, at least for a time, will be loosened. And the other benefits of play… empathy, optimism, an increased sense of vitality, will, with the pleasurable repetition that play fosters, be more and more… yours.
This is what nature has offered us to cope with the inevitable travail of being in this world that can throw us the curve-balls of pandemics… and more. Play On!