Is Relief More Powerful Than Happiness?
I have a vivid memory of a warm summer’s day in my hometown. I was crossing the main square, and a women on a bicycle drew up beside me and asked for directions. Then she glanced back, and saw the empty kiddy seat on the back of her bike. She left out a high pitched, anguished scream, jumped off her bike and let it crash onto the pavement. “Lily! Lily! Where are you?” she screamed. “My kid, my kid! I lost her!” The look in her eyes was pure panic. She looked through me, in that second no one was real, her entire world was her missing daughter. She started to run, panicked, back the way she came from, but a man stopped her. “Is this your kid?” he asked, and holding his hand was little Lily. It only lasted thirty seconds, the time between realising her daughter had hopped off the bike and finding her, but the look of pure, utter joy in that mothers eyes, the passion with which she scooped Lily up into her arms and embraced her, it was so intense that it still makes me cry whenever I think about it.
Our brains on relief
Relief — the feeling of a return to normal, from pain, fear, hunger, thirst, or an intense need to urinate — is an emotion so extreme it takes your breath away. Maybe that is why we sigh in relief.
Until you are suffering, you don’t realise how amazing the absence of pain feels. Those of us lucky enough not to face chronic pain or mental illness often take for granted how amazing it is to feel … nothing. Only when the pain or catastrophe subsides do we fully appreciate it. Relief is an emotion rooted in the absence of feeling — it is what is left when pain or distress subsides.
Relief is a deep breath as you break the surface of the water. It is waking up from a nightmare and realising the racoon with knives for hands isn’t really on your tail. It is a feeling so strong it gives taste to water — the best taste in the world, when you are parched.
For Greek philosopher Epicurus, pleasure itself is nothing more than “the absence of pain in the body and of troubles in the soul” and the highest form of pleasure is the abatement of pain — otherwise known as relief.
In the brain, different forms of relief closely resemble each other, whether it is itching an itch or when your partner finally turns their alarm clock off or when you are an addict finally getting a fix. A 2013 study in PLOS ONE showed that these various forms of relief activate the same reward-related brain systems, and deactivation of the areas of the brain active when we experience negative events.
‘Catastrophe has been averted. Let us all breathe a big, long sigh of relief’
Yesterday, Trump exited the White House with his tail between his legs, his parting words as incoherant yet ominous as his presidency. “Have a good life … we will be back,” he said, before boarding a plane to Florida, refusing to acknowledge the importance of a democratic transfer of power by not attending Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
There is a definite sense of relief, seeing him leave. Finally, the past four years of white supremacy and sexism sitting at the head of the country are over. “Catastrophe has been averted. Let us all breathe a big, long sigh of relief,” wrote novelist France Prose in The Guardian last November. “This election result is like the final scene of a disaster film: the sun is shining, the sky is clear, the birds — those birds that are left — are sweetly singing.” We can be slightly less scared. We survived.
Of course, many people did not, and the feeling of relief is tainted. Last week, white supremacists stormed the Capitol and took with them the comfort of taking democracy for granted. Far-right media continue to repeat Trump’s lies about the election being stolen. 74 million people voted for an autocrat, and they aren’t going anywhere. But still, let us enjoy being able to take a deep breath, even if it is of deeply polluted air.
Let us feel that relief, and let it give us the strength to keep on fighting. Biden is better than Trump, but he is still not the president I would hope for. We shall have to continue to fight for social justice over the next four years. Meanwhile, we will still have to continue to fight Trump and those millions of Americans who think like him.
This relief feels good, but it is no replacement for happiness. We cannot live in the extremes of great pain and great relief. Not when that pain consisted in real people who paid with their lives, their livelihoods, their freedom.
We can do better than just the abatement of pain and the avoidance of catastrophe.