The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


In January 2011, wobbly mobile-phone footage of an unforeseen uprising in Tunisia began to appear on the world’s TV screens. Over the coming weeks and months, protestors poured onto the streets of Cairo, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Emboldened and defiant, they chanted Ash-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nizam—“the people want to bring down the regime”—against a backdrop of tear gas and burning cars. Months later, once the news cameras had left and thoughts turned to an uncertain future, those involved reflected on its feverish mood. As the Tunisian activist and blogger Lina Ben Mhenni put it, “After a few weeks of revolutionary euphoria, Tunisia is once again a police state.”

It’s intoxicating, infectious. It swells the heart and whirls us round and round. It’s there in the breathless early weeks of a love affair, in the exhilarating highs of a strange city at night. Everything feels alight and connected, the world glows, even smells and colors seem more intense. But sometimes there is an undertow of danger. Of artifice. “What goes up must come down,” we say, in a warning sort of voice—fearing our EXCITEMENT may dance too close to the biochemical manias of bipolar disease, or the false bravado of “economic euphoria,” the boom that can only lead to a bust.

It wasn’t always like this. When the word “euphoria,” or “euphory,” first entered the English language in the seventeenth century, it described a fairly ordinary feeling of physical and emotional CONTENTMENT. From the Greek eu (well) pherein (to bear), the word literally meant “well-bearing,” the predecessor of today’s ubiquitous “well-being.” In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when formerly extremely ill patients started to show interest in their food and felt ready to get out of bed, doctors described this as euphory returning—the first reliable sign of recovery.*

It was only in the nineteenth century, with that era’s obsessive categorization and pathologization of our mental lives, that euphoria picked up its undercurrent of transgression and excess. In 1896 the French physician Théodore Ribot dedicated a whole chapter of The Psychology of the Emotions to a phenomenon called “The Euphoria of the Dying.” He and many of his fellow physicians had noted that some patients experienced states of ecstatic bliss at the end of their lives, laughing delightedly, leaping out of bed and optimistically making plans for the future, seemingly oblivious to the imminence of their demise. These patients perplexed, even outraged, doctors, who dismissed the sudden outburst of euphoria—or what they called “silly cheerfulness”—as a sign of degeneracy. Since the doctors believed it only served an evolutionary advantage to feel well when actually physically well, they concluded that the elation of dying patients consisted merely of the disordered outpourings of already corrupted minds, whose tendency to dwell on “morbid pleasures” had caused the illness in the first place.

The idea that we might experience euphoria, rather than DREAD or GRIEF, on our deathbeds has become less widespread today. In 1926 two physicians named Cottrell and Wilson found that over two-thirds of patients in the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis experienced a “prevailing mood of serenity and cheerfulness.” Today, only 13 percent of patients suffering the same disease report feeling anything close to euphoric, while incidents of depression are on the rise. Why? Perhaps earlier (or our own) methods of assessing mood are to blame, or maybe the elated feelings of MS patients of the past, or the depression of those in the present, can be attributed to medication. It also seems likely that social factors, such as the waning of religious beliefs and the fact that dying is increasingly screened off in clinical settings, play their role. Either way, the link between euphoria and illness remains challenging. Early in 2013, when ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer (he has now recovered), the press pounced on his descriptions of feeling “vividly alive” with a “strange euphoria” and “marvelous feeling of freedom.” His interviews, though intensely uplifting, disconcertingly undermined our own calcified notions of HAPPINESS and where we should find it.

See also: ECSTASY.