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Phew! The science of the close call

With the school year winding down, students and teachers from coast-to-coast are letting out a huge sigh of relief. And whether you're feeling relief because you're retiring this June, found your misplaced cell phone, or got back a negative medical test result, the truth is scientists know surprisingly little about this common feeling.

Recently two researchers studied this emotion to help paint a clearer picture of it. But what exactly is relief -- aside from that phew-inducing feeling as if a heavy weight has been lifted off your shoulders?

"Relief involves a contrast between a good feeling right now and a bad feeling that either never happened or has ended," says lead author Kate Sweeny, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. "It's that sense that things are better right now than they could otherwise be."

In the study, published in the May issue of Psychological Science, researchers revealed that relief is not one simple emotion. It's actually more complex and takes on two distinct forms that affects us in different ways.

One form is near-miss relief, which is what you may feel when you narrowly avoid something terrible. It's the dodged-a-bullet feeling after you swerve to avoid a fender-bender or finding your keys and realizing you're not locked out.

The second kind is task-completion relief, from persevering through a difficult experience. Examples include wrapping up a stressful project at work, reaching the end of a tough school year, or training for and running a marathon.

To study relief, one experiment involved nearly 80 college students who were told they would be singing Morris Albert's corny song "Feelings" into an audio-recorder with someone observing their performance. Half of the volunteers -- the task-completion group -- sang. The other half -- the near-miss group -- were told the recorder broke so they wouldn't have to sing.

Afterwards, both groups completed surveys about the emotions they were feeling.

Researchers found the students who felt near-miss relief from not singing tended to think about how things could have turned out worse ("I'm glad no one had to listen to my awful voice.") Because their thoughts focus on the near miss, people in this situation turn inward and feel emotionally isolated from other people who did not share this experience, according to Sweeny.

In contrast, someone who has crooned "Feelings" also feels relieved that it's over. But they can focus less on the now completed task and their thoughts turn to moving forward, freed of the burden they once faced. "These people have no reason to feel socially isolated," explains Sweeny. "They may feel even more connected to other people because they are no longer distracted by the onerous task."

This study confirmed that all relief is not created equal, and the emotion serves a psychological purpose.  "We believe it may play a crucial role in helping people to improve themselves following an experience of relief," says Sweeny.

Feeling relieved to be done with something difficult or unpleasant can motivate people to stick with tough tasks or endure them in the future, Sweeny suggests. And she says that feeling relieved to have avoided something terrible can motivate people to avoid the near miss altogether in the future.