Congratulations. Susanna Schrobsdorff, an editor at large for Time magazine, recently noted that, as we face the new year, we have just made it through literally the darkest month of the year. In the USA and some other areas in the Northern Hemisphere, Dec. 21 signals the winter solstice. For the past six months, the days have grown shorter and the nights have grown longer. What distinguishes the solstice this year — in this “darkest of years” — is that we now find ourselves at what Schrobsdorff calls both “a celestial and medical tipping point.”
From this past Tuesday on in the Northern Hemisphere, instead of losing daylight, every day will get a few seconds more. “The (COVID) vaccines are a little like those extra minutes of daylight: an incremental, cumulative victory, not an instant one. … every time someone gets the vaccine, there’s another pinprick of light,” says Schrobsdorff.
“Our nights will feel endless for a while longer,” she goes on to warn. “We’ll still have to fight this virus with the tools we’ve had all along: generosity of spirit and wallet, masks, patience, science — and love. Love for ourselves, and for the children who are watching to see how we treat each other.”
As psychotherapist Jenny Maenpaa recently explained to Caroline Bologna of Huffington Post, moving forward, our brains will continue to be on overdrive. “We know on a cellular level that there is a threat to our survival, as both individual humans and a species, so we are stuck in a fight-flight-freeze cycle where our brains can’t figure out which one will keep us alive. … We’re not sleeping well because we’re staying alert enough to jump out of bed if the threat comes close enough to us, which our brains can’t understand is an unhelpful and irrelevant biological response to a virus.” As a result, Maenpaa believes that “When we don’t get enough restorative sleep, our reaction times are slower, our emotional self-regulation is poorer, and we have trouble performing high-level cognitive functions.” What can we do to improve both our sleep and wakeful hours? “Puzzles are a surprising antidote to all of those challenges,” Maenpaa says.
This seemed an odd solution to me. Until I took a closer look. With so many big and burdensome and impossible issues at hand, why not focus on a small pleasure? It could even be made a part of a New Year’s wellness goal.
Clinicians believe that working puzzles provides a needed clear goal and sense of purpose at a time when people feel aimless and unable to map out their future. “While COVID-19 is associated with a lack of control and an unknown end, puzzles offer the opposite,” Michael Vilensky, a psychologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, explains to Bologna. “With a puzzle, with enough time and effort, we can control the outcome, know it will end, and experience a sense of relief and accomplishment when it’s finished.”
“A lot of people have told me that when they’re doing a puzzle, they just sort of shut out all their worries, they just concentrate on matching pieces,” Anne Williams, the author of “The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History,” recently explained to Alexis Soloski of The New York Times. Nick Baxter, who chairs a puzzle design competition, points out that certain skill sets help with puzzle-solving. They include a good visual memory, organizational flair, a talent for pattern-matching and lots of patience.
“We are thus engaged in a mental hunt for something, much like a detective in mystery stories or a scientist looking for the reason behind some phenomenon,” Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics and anthropology at Victoria College, University of Toronto, tells Lisa Milbrand of Reader’s Digest. He equates it to “a ‘quest for understanding,’ even though there is nothing new at the end of the hunt when a solution is uncovered.”
Science tells us that there is a neuroscience component to this phenomenon. According to research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, jigsaw puzzles may help people relax and reduce their stress. Reports Milbrand, and according to another recent study, that feel-good moment when you finally figure out that last clue or place the missing piece comes from a rush of dopamine in your nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain responsible for rewards and reinforcement.
Many Americans under stay-at-home mandates long ago discovered the appeal of jigsaw puzzles. Since March, these puzzles have been flying off the shelves, an unnamed companion to vanishing toilet paper and cleaning supplies, creating an immediate puzzle shortage. According to NPR, by the second week of March, Ceaco, considered one of the top puzzle manufacturers of the world, saw sales at one of its largest retailers increase 300% over the same week the previous year. According to CNBC, sales by game-maker Ravensburger are averaging close to 20 puzzles per minute in North America for 2020, something the company has not seen before in its 136-year history.
There is a history of Americans turning to jigsaw puzzles during times of economic uncertainty. First invented in the 18th century, according to Wikipedia, jigsaw puzzles also had a huge surge in popularity about 90 years ago, around the time of the Great Depression.
If you have not given this diversion a try and you want to start, you might consider following suggested tips from the Facebook group Jigsaw Puzzlers. Tackle the edges first. Then, sort out non-edge pieces by shape and colors on separate trays. It is suggested that you not start with a puzzle that is too big, and that you take your time. It is also suggested you pick a finished picture that is pleasing to the eye. You will be looking at it a lot.