People Who Cry Are Happier

5 min read

There is this paradoxical saying, “People who cry are happier people.” Upon initial assessment, this doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. People typically cry when they are sad, and sad people, well, aren’t happy. But to understand this saying, we need to further assess the function of crying and tears and see how not all crying is the same.

Tears come in several varieties, based on the purpose, function, and emotional state connected to them. Humans cry for many reasons: sadness, joy, pain, communication, environmental reactions like allergies, and even sometimes for manipulative reasons. Tears can actually be broken down into three types: basal tears, reflexive tears, and emotional tears.

Basal Tears: According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, basal tears are our shielding tears. They serve the purpose of protecting our eyes and keeping them fresh and clean from dirt or debris. These are the outer service tears that constantly lubricate our eyes. These are also the tears that many animals produce. There have been stories of elephants crying tears when released from captivity, or dogs crying tears of joy when their owners return home from deployment. Unfortunately, these stories of animals crying emotional tears have been debunked, and what we are witnessing are most likely basal tears or even possibly reflexive tears. Animals do certainly express emotions, but according to Picó (2021), producing emotional tears is a solely human feature.

Reflexive Tears: Also known as our “immediate tears,” reflexive tears form as a result of instant eye irritation, such as smoke, pollution, allergies, or foreign bodies. They come in larger quantities, as compared to basal tears, and can look like “true” tears, causing eye watering or even tearing down the face. In contrast to basal tears which are mostly saline, reflexive tears contain high levels of antibodies to help protect the eye from infection (American Academy of Ophthalmology).

Emotional Tears: These are human tears that come in response to strong emotions, like joy, sadness, fear, or pain. The chemical composition of emotional tears differs from other tears. Emotional tears are found to contain prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, leu-enkephalin, potassium, and manganese. These hormones help us cope with high emotional states. For example, the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin is an endogenous opioid that acts like a natural pain killer.

Allowing oneself to cry during physical or emotional pain releases this hormone and helps us literally feel better. In 2017, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher published “The Topography of Tears,” a visual collection of dried human tears photographed under a microscope, depicting numerous states. In this fascinating collection, Fisher was able to demonstrate how tears of grief and other strong emotions look vastly different from basal tears or tears from smelling an onion.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

The purpose of crying

Because humans are the only organisms that have demonstrated the ability to cry emotional tears, we cannot overlook the function of emotional crying. Societal stigma has cursed crying as a form of weakness, or something to be hidden or ashamed of. But there is a reason we can, and should, cry. Crying is emotionally connective. It bonds us together, allowing us to communicate in deeper expressive/emotional ways. Crying is cathartic. It soothes us; it helps us to relieve our pain and enhance our mood. In Japanese culture, crying therapy or ruikatsu (tear-seeking), is a common practice used to promote well-being.

Unfortunately, many individuals still struggle with bottling up emotions, including crying. There are emotional and physical dangers to repressing the display of emotion. A study by Quartana and Burns (2010) demonstrated that individuals who suppressed their emotions had more prominent systolic blood pressure responses compared to those in other conditions. This study also demonstrated negative long-term effects of emotional suppression, causing stress-induced cardiovascular reactivity. A 2023 study by investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that gut health is also influenced by emotion suppression. The analysis found that people who suppressed their emotions had a less diverse gut microbiome, leading to other chronic conditions (Ke et al., 2023). Evidence of detrimental effects on the liver (Chida et al., 2006), thyroid health (Ciubotaru, 2022), the brain (Katsumi et al., 2020), and muscle function and lower back pain (Burns et al., 2012) have also been recognized.

What if I can’t cry?

But what about those of us who struggle to cry? I’ve had numerous clients in session tell me how badly they want to be able to cry but struggle with a block or an inability. Here are a few ideas to consider if you’re having trouble crying:

  1. Medication. Certain medications may mute emotional states, making the function of crying very difficult.
  2. Medical Conditions. Medical conditions, such as Sjogren’s Syndrome, attack the glands that produce tears.
  3. Personal stigma regarding crying. What is your association with crying? Are there any repressed emotions that have created an added block?
  4. The importance of space. Creating a physically and emotionally safe space to allow oneself to be vulnerable can help.
  5. Don’t force it. The more you force, the more you resist. Don’t try to get yourself to cry. Start by journaling and exploring any emotions that may come up and allow yourself to feel without blocking.

Moving forward, maybe we can rethink our association with crying as not just a reaction to physical or emotional circumstances, but as a function of overall wellness. We should take time to understand the complexity of tears as more than just saline liquid pouring from our eyes, but an intricate necessity that protects us, helps us communicate, and relieves us. People who cry are happier (and healthier) people.

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