The word euphoria is a compilation of the Greek words eu, meaning “good” or “well,” and pherō, meaning “to bring” or “to bear.”
Euphoria is commonly listed as an adverse side effect of both prescription opioids and cannabinoids. But what is so bad about having feelings of intense happiness, pleasure, and well-being? What is wrong with blissful elation, full-bodied gratitude, a euphoria so deep that all that remains is to wail with tears of joy? What is this force that inspires poets but seems to scare the institutions of government, to threaten the halls of modern medicine, and to attract suspicion in many organized houses of worship?
Medieval religious prejudices viewed ecstasy in two ways. Euphoria in the form of fun or of a voluptuous nature was considered a sign of the devil or demonic possession, especially in women. On the other hand, an extraordinary perception of a more immaculate nature was thought to be a vision from God—for example, the euphoric visions of Bernadette Soubirous led to her canonization and the establishment of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, France.
The limited response to the experience of euphoria was mirrored in the emerging orthodox medical profession of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Medical professionals viewed both euphoria and its negative state, “possession,” as a disease of the nervous system, and women afflicted with “the condition” were diagnosed with “hysteria,” a term based on the Greek word hustérā, for “womb” or “uterus.”
Let’s think about it for a moment. Why is an emotional experience that otherwise could be described as a peak experience, an extraordinary state of consciousness, a heightened awareness, a moment of bliss, a sense of majesty, a brush with spirit, a touch of soul rich with substance, or an awareness of the immortal in oneself somehow thought to be an adverse effect like a skin rash or nausea? This judgment is even more irrational when we consider that expansive experiences of this nature can quickly shift neurological and psychological pain and dysphoria responses toward those that elicit expansive affect, which is clearly associated with therapeutic potential. You don’t need to be a doctor to notice that this feels a heck of a lot better than depression or fear.
In my years of researching natural substances that induce extra-ordinary experiences I have come to believe that euphoria is one of the most underrated, underutilized, and prosecuted forces of healing, transformation, and transcendence known to humankind. Seeking euphoria is an intrinsic behavior of humanity. It is a behavioral constant. Meanwhile it is bias, prejudice, and moral judgment that serve to frame the pleasure of euphoric bliss as a pathology.
In fact, it’s not just people who seek out euphoria. Siberian reindeer and North American caribou actively seek out fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), the legendary red mushroom with white dots, and feed on them abundantly until the animals become severely altered in their behavior. They make unusual noises and slowly move their rear ends, their snouts begin to twitch, and they wander about with swaying steps.
Overripe fermenting durian fruit are a favorite of elephants and monkeys, who eat as much as they can until they are too drunk, at which point they lie down or move in slow motion. When the effects wear off, they go straight back for more until the supply is exhausted. The same is true for certain birds in the United States. When cherries become ripe and begin to ferment on the tree, birds of all types flock to the feast and gorge themselves until they fall to the ground. If left alone, they return for more as soon as their faculties allow them to.
Which brings us to an age-old question. Why take drugs?
It is easily argued that the quality of our emotions determines the quality of our lives. Using drugs (or any activity) that produces the way we want to feel is a form of emotional self-regulation. Ultimately, what our drug-taking reveals, by the emotions they engender, is what kind of emotional life we truly are looking for. In a way, our drug-taking demonstrates substantial aspects of our dreams, purpose, and meaning.
If opioid using people are seeking analgesic euphoria, a freedom from pain and an expansion of our well-being than cannabis-using people may seek relaxation, ease, and lightheartedness to cope with the ill effects of chronic tension, stress, and seriousness. What is it for you? What kind of life do you want to live, and what kind of emotions would give it to you?
A final question worth considering is, what is the most life-affirming way to realize it?