Why Do We Cry When We Are Happy?
Do you find yourself reaching for the tissue-box at the end of most rom-coms, when the leading pair finally realize their love for each other, reunite, and walk into the sunset together? Or did you cry when you were finally handed your college degree by a dignitary during convocation? And, what about when you meet a loved one after a long, long time? If so, you know what it feels like to shed tears of joy. But, why do we cry when we’re happy?
According to Dr. Jordan Lewis, a researcher of psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, when we are overwhelmed by emotions, our brains cannot always discern the difference between happy and sad reactions. The hypothalamus, an almond-sized part of our brains, simply responds to the strong, neural signals from the amygdala, which is in charge of registering our emotional reactions. And this response involves the activation of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us calm down by releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that, basically, leads to tear-production.
Another explanation is that crying helps in the regulation of extreme emotions. Research suggests that we experience emotions so intense that they become unmanageable and overwhelming — even if the emotions in question are joy, elation, or gratitude — we cry in a bid to immediately release these emotions, and begin the process of calming down. Experts believe that tears reflect feelings that cannot be expressed, or consummated, through other behaviors.
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Moreover, crying can also lead to feelings of empathy, bonding, and social connection with those around us. Crying helps us communicate in a way language cannot — helping us connect to those we are surrounded by, in that moment, in our collective, weepy joy.
In addition, when we cry, our body releases happy hormones like endorphins, which ward off pain and perpetuate pleasure. Coupled with the release of oxytocin, which is known to induce a sense of calm, and of bonding, these endorphins immediately push us into an overall sense of well-being. While on the one hand, this can magnify feelings of pleasure, thereby making us happier, on the other hand, it also calms us down — putting us at ease with our happiness.
Called a dimorphous expression, tears of joy are akin to cute aggression, or the desire to squish, or nibble on, cute, adorable little things. Dimorphous expressions are the brain’s way of preventing us from being overwhelmed by an emotion — by releasing hormones that impose the opposite effect, and allow us to strike a balance by stabilizing our heightened positive emotions and neutralizing them to a more manageable level.
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Another explanation suggests that major life events like graduation, or getting a job one always dreamt of, or the joy of seeing one’s child for the first time, which often prompt tears, are also preceded by prolonged periods of stress and hard work that ultimately lead to these milestones. As such, crying acts as the “ultimate catharsis, or release, from this prolonged stress.”
So, the next time you find yourself shedding a tear or two out of absolute elation, don’t be embarrassed. It’s natural, and it’s good for you.