Tears of Joy

What does it take to make a grown adult cry?

That’s what a team of researchers asked in a recent study published in the journal Emotion. But they weren’t interested in just any crying – they wanted to know why people cry with happiness.

They found that, first, crying tears of joy is associated with a couple other physical sensations: goosebumps and what the researchers called “feelings of chest warmth.”

It turned out that specific situations were especially likely to trigger bouts of “positive” crying. In particular, events where people become more interpersonally close or perform moral acts seem to bring about tears of happiness, especially when those events are unusually intense. The researchers also found that these two types of situations – where people become closer or perform moral acts – are associated with the emotion that we colloquially call “being moved” or “being touched.”

Interestingly, these types of “moving” situations can make people cry regardless of whether the people are involved in the situations or just observing them. So if you find yourself crying like a baby every time you watch a movie with a happy ending, that could be part of the reason why.

Other research has looked at why people cry in response to artwork like paintings. It found that people are more likely to report that they “feel like crying” after viewing paintings that they experience as beautiful and meaningful and that cause self-reflection and epiphany.

Of course, some people are bigger criers than others. Researchers refer to this trait as “crying proneness” and have linked it to other variables like age and empathy. The underlying biology of why some people cry more quickly than others is still hazy, but at least one study suggests that the neurotransmitter noradrenaline is somehow involved.

Overall, the research indicates that certain situations like becoming more interpersonally close, witnessing a moral act and viewing a transformative work of art can all lead to tears of joy. But these findings raise new questions – what do these different experiences all have in common, for example? Discovering the answer to one question only leads to new questions – and that’s what makes science beautiful. *sniff* *sniff*

Image: Flickr/Dennis Skley under CC BY-ND 2.0