The Optimized Doctor

Distinguishing between joy and pleasure during the pandemic


You can now buy vegan eggnog, made from almond milk. The fact that someone created this wasn’t a surprise – plant milks are taking over. That it gave me such pleasure was. It’s rich, and if you love eggnog, like all normal people, it’s amazingly satisfying when mixed in a Nespresso latte swirled creamy white and brown. It seems some things, like Netflix’s The Crown, my Peloton spin classes, long Sunday walks on the beach, and the best mushroom risotto I ever made were still pleasurable this year, despite all. I’d daresay, there was joy even in the time of COVID.

But, before we get to that, it might be useful to distinguish between joy and pleasure.

Pleasure is pretty constant. It pops up even in the worst times. It seems, there’s plenty to be found even now. Unless, perhaps it’s just me. The label my mother pinned on me as a boy has remained into adulthood: “Easy to please.” There’s hardly a movie I’ve seen that I didn’t like. I’m quite comfortable in the middle seat. I thought the EPIC updates this year were nice. I’ve liked the vast majority of pizzas I’ve ever eaten – even those contaminated with Truffle salt. Easy to please is a gift, not something I’ve acquired through hours of meditation or aesthetic fasts. But surely pleasure isn’t the same as joy. No one has tears of pleasure. (Not to mention, pleasure as a verb has obvious NSFW connotations; not true of joy).

No, joy is waaay bigger. Joy is shared. Joy is to the whole world. Joy is what happens when you have a baby. Pleasure is what happens when you remembered to put a burp cloth in the car. Pleasure is when three patients in a row take merely 5 minutes each. Joy is when an itchy patient is cured.

2020 was one of the most miserable years in the last century. We didn’t expect it, but we ought to have. I mean really, how many plagues have we endured? How many times has inequality led to social unrest? Many times. We, by luck and dint of hard work, have always managed to get through. Although suffering would surely have been greater during those times of sickness and loss, I don’t believe joy would have been less. Indeed, maybe it is those difficulties and that suffering that allows us to feel joy in the first place. It is only once you summit that you experience joy. The run-up is just pain.

It is no coincidence that it is now during this cold, dark, difficult part of the year that we wish joy. We’ve made it. We light the darkness with candles to joyously celebrate Mawlid, Diwali, then Hanukkah and Christmas. Had malls been open now, you’d hear amongst the din of ringing bells Rejoice! Rejoice! O Emmanuel! You’d sing along, “Joy to the world, now we sing, let the Angel voices ring.” Joy: A pleasure so great and so deserved, it is shared by all. It is good news, hope, gratitude.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

This year, through the suffering of labor, a child was born (6 pounds, 5 ounces). Through the anxious nights watching her chest rise and fall, my wife and I can now finally sleep. Through the weeks of attempts to latch, more difficult than docking with the space station, it seemed, she finally nursed. Joy was given to us this year. We had pleasures too, but there’s no real hardship in pouring eggnog, no tears that follow. Her arrival has brought risk, worry, work, effort, and for perhaps only the third time in my life, tears of joy.

A joy shared amongst us all is also coming. Through the wrenching pain of watching patients suffocate, fogged shields, and bleached masks, through canceled Thanksgivings, through weekends spent in the OR on the backlog of patients, after months spent sitting in empty clinics, though the long, orange-cone-winding lines of testing, at last, at last a vaccine is here to light the darkness.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy.
Joy to the world.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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