There are two types of relief. You experience ‘near-miss relief’ when something you were worried about possibly happening does not happen after all. For example, when you worry for months about an upcoming risky surgical procedure, and at the pre-check the day before the doctor tells you it is not necessary anymore.
Near-miss relief is the positive counterpart of disappointment. You can also experience it when the thing you worried about does happen, but the outcome is not as bad as you expected. For example, if a major tropical storm is headed your way and you worry it would wreak havoc on your house; but after the storm, you only find a few broken windows. The outcome – the broken windows – is something that would normally evoke negative emotions. But because you were expecting much worse, you feel relieved.
The other type of relief is ‘episode-completion relief’. You feel this after going through an unpleasant experience which is finally over. Imagine that for your birthday, your coworkers drag you to a full karaoke bar. You generally dislike drawing attention to yourself in crowds and your singing qualities are subpar. Nevertheless, your coworkers arrange for you to go on stage and sing a lengthy song. You absolutely dread every second of it. When you can finally return to your seat, you feel immensely relieved.
Common to both types is an initial period of unpleasantness, the end of which evokes relief. The difference between the two types is that for episode-completion relief, the unpleasantness is caused by something negative actually happening, while for near-miss relief, the unpleasantness comes from the expectation that something negative will happen.
Like compassion and schadenfreude, relief belongs to a small group of positive emotions that concerns itself with negative events. In the case of relief, the positivity of the emotion comes from the termination or avoidance of the negative event. Another emotion similar to relief is serenity which can also arise in response to the end of an unpleasant experience, but not necessarily. Because relief always occurs in association with prior worry, the experience of this emotion may be more intense (and possibly shorter) than that of serenity.
There are a number of conditions that can influence how relieved you feel over something. The intensity of near-miss relief increases if you had been worried about a negative event for a long time, if you expected it to be very unpleasant, and if you just nearly miss it. Whereas episode-completion relief tends to be more intense when the negative episode lasts longer, and when it is very unpleasant.
From both the outside and the inside, relief looks and feels like a relief of tension. A relieved person relaxes their muscles, sits down, or sinks back into their chair, and lets out a long-held breath – ‘sighing with relief’1 2. Children seem able to experience relief from the age of 73.
Some speculate that relief does not really have a function, but is simply the aftermath of tension release2. However, near-miss relief can prompt people to contemplate how to avert similar experiences in the future, by putting ‘mental markers’ on actions that helped you avoid the negative event, and those that did not help or made things even worse. Episode-completion relief, on the other hand, may serve to reinforce endurance during difficult tasks (‘it was not so bad after all’).