Mostly we associate crying with negative emotions. Most often, people will cry because they’re sad or injured and this acts as a social signal that that person is in distress as well as a potential form of catharsis for that person. However people don’t just cry when they’re in distress; they can also cry because they’re happy or even because they’re laughing. This seems a little contradictory, so what’s going on?
Crying and Equilibrium
It’s only recently that studies have begun exploring this phenomenon. One researcher named Oriana Aragon has recently begun conducting research on the subject and though that research is yet to be published, you can read about it on the Yale website (here).
Her theory is that we cry in order to ‘restore emotional equilibrium’. She points out that crying when happy is actually just one example of humans responding to positive scenarios with a seemingly negative reaction. We don’t just cry when we’re happy – we also scream when we’re very excited, punch the air and pinch or punch people we love. Like when your gran pinches your cheek or you ruffle someone’s hair affectionately.
In the study, Oriana and her team tested how long it took for people to recover from extremely positive emotions and return to ‘normal’ state. What she found was that those people who made negative displays were actually better able to get back to ‘normal’ emotional states more quickly.
Interestingly, there was also a correlation between the various different types of contrasting responses. In other words, someone who cries at a wedding is also more likely to pinch your cheeks. And likewise, it seems that strong negative feelings can sometimes result in positive actions – for instance you might chuckle because you’re nervous.
What’s worth bearing in mind is that we aren’t 100 percent certain on why we cry or laugh anyway. While evolutionary psychologists say that it is an adaptive social signal that aids with communication, this doesn’t completely explain the actual physical mechanism behind it.
One interesting thing to consider is that crying when you’re genuinely sad results in your tears containing neurotransmitters and hormones associated with sadness. One theory is that you’re actually flushing the brain of negative emotions. Another theory is that crying and laughter comes from general ‘excitement’ in a neurological sense and is a release of ‘psychic energy’. Others suggest it is simply a learned response. This is supported by the fact that men will cry on average 7 times a year while women cry a whopping 47 times a year – and this discrepancy seems to be entirely dictated by social norms. It’s also worth noting that different people cry at different things, which may be a result of their own individual experiences and what they’ve been taught growing up.
Whatever the explanation behind our displays of emotion though, they clearly have a useful function and now we’re a little bit closer to being able to understand why we may sometimes seem to display the wrong emotion for the situation.
Bonus Round: Why You Look Ugly When You Cry
‘Ugly cry’ is an internet term for when someone is so sad that they contort their face into highly unattractive shapes. Our face puffs up and we frown and shout… it’s not pretty. So where does all the ugliness come from? Why does crying look bad enough to have become an internet meme?
Partly this is due to dilation of the blood vessels which causes the eyes to turn red. This is necessary in order for us to produce large amounts of tears and so you’re not going to get a good cry without also getting horrible bloodshot eyes.
Likewise, your eyes get very puffy due to the salt in your tears. Salt causes water retention and as a result, getting lots of it around your eyes causes the skin and flesh around your eyes to puff up with more water resulting in a eyes that are not just red, but also puffy.
Finally, all the contortion can be traced back to your ‘fight and flight’ response which results in an increase in adrenaline and norepinephrine. This in turn increases your heart rate and sends blood to your face. You’ll also hold your breath as a result and this causes your face to redden and makes you strain your facial muscles. Then if you add all of the tears and snot… well the result is something that you probably wouldn’t see on the cover of a magazine.