Crying happy tears: The surprising mental health benefits you need to know about

Here’s why we cry when we’re happy.

A person’s natural reaction to pain, grief or sadness is to cry. It’s not uncommon to see people sniffing their handkerchiefs at weddings, graduations or after getting a hard-earned promotion.

We cry when we’re happy, so why do we do it? In infants and babies, crying is a natural way to request care and attention. Adulthood brings a broader range of emotions that trigger tears.

There are three theories to help you understand why you cry during events that are expected to evoke more smiles than tears [1].

Your repressed feelings are triggered.

No moment or event occurs as an isolated incident. Any milestone achieved or obstacle overcome is a result of a long journey.

To reap the benefits of your labor, you have probably endured prolonged stress and fought to overcome roadblocks that have likely been left unprocessed in the pressure to keep moving forward. It is thus possible that crying is the end reaction to a cascade of triggered, forgotten emotions.

This may be especially true when milestones or achievements bring with them a tinge of anxiety. Here are two examples:

  • Parents may be teary-eyed at their child’s wedding because they are simultaneously happy for their child’s new beginning but also nervous about losing them to this change.
  • Students graduating from student to employee might be ecstatic about their academic merits while also stressed about performing at the new job and moving away from their friends.

You are trying to communicate and connect.

Overwhelming emotions can lead to knotted throats and brain-freeze moments. Tears become a source of communication when one struggles with a loss of words.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology emphasizes how seeing one cry with tears rolling down their cheeks compels viewers to offer comfort and empathetic support [2] willingly. Responding with care and kindness when seeing someone under duress is a basic human instinct.

Another study further breaks down the communicative nature of crying, showing four main reasons people shed joyous tears [3]. They are:

  • Achievement tears: Expressing feelings of pride for someone overcoming obstacles or appreciating extraordinary feats or achievements
  • Beauty tears: Expressing awe when in the presence of unparalleled elegance, whether in people, art, music, or nature
  • Affectionate tears: Expressing heartfelt gratitude for acts of unexpected kindness and gestures of love
  • Amusement tears: Responding to an amusing situation and accompanied with laughter and giggles (“I’m laughing so hard I’m crying”)

Happy tears typically convey a touching story or heartfelt moment with onlookers, the common denominator being the powerlessness and helplessness felt by all in the expanse of the emotions created.

It helps you feel better physically.

Mental health advocates have worked tirelessly to normalize crying as a healthy coping mechanism, citing its many chemical and hormonal benefits, such as releasing “happy hormones” like oxytocin and endorphins.

The physical act of releasing an emotion out of the body, whether positive or negative, helps achieve physical and emotional homeostasis, suggests research published in Emotion Review [4].

Tears of joy are a natural and complex expression of our emotional experiences. Holding on to the false notion that crying is an unwanted, negative emotional state can leave you feeling confused about your tears of joy when, in fact, they are entirely normal and even healthy.

However, find yourself breaking down in response to small triggers and feeling embarrassed by your inability to regulate your emotions. It might be helpful to see a mental health professional uncover the roots of your concerns.


Photograph: TatyanaOt/Envato
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