Though my 5th birthday party was a long time ago, I can still clearly see the scene: my mom’s elderly parents had prepared a birthday cake with candles for me. It sat majestically on their white Formica kitchen table. My frail grandfather turned off the fluorescent light-fixture overhead and gently asked me to blow out the candles. As I did so, they sang “Happy birthday to you,” and when grandfather turned the bright lighting back on, I saw they both were crying. Of course at that tender age, I associated tears only with pain—and I asked what was wrong. I think it was my grandmother who smiled and replied, “Nothing is wrong. When you’re older, you’ll understand.”
Have you ever cried from happiness? Do you become dewy-eyed from inspiring music, art, or literature—or from the victory of your favorite sports team? Can you recall movies whose uplifting scenes moved you to tears? Tears of joy like my grandparents experienced have been depicted in both religious and literary sources for millennia. Yet, surprisingly, this powerful human phenomenon has been almost completely overlooked by modern psychology. To explain why this situation has prevailed lies outside the scope of this column. But with the growth of scientific interest in individual flourishing and wellbeing, positive emotions including tears of joy are gaining their rightful attention by researchers. Let’s take a brief historical look and then examine intriguing current scientific research.
Religious and literary views
Through literature, people in India are long familiar with tears of joy. TheMahabharata, the Sanskrit epic of ancient India, recounts how “Pritha heard such grateful voices born aloft unto the sky, milk of love suffused her bosom, a tear of joy was in her eye.” In The Illiad, the Greek poet Homer—nearly 3,000 years ago—depicted Odysseus as crying in pleasure when the bard Demodocus recounts the story of the Trojan horse—despite Odysseus’ pain in remembering lost comrades and lost time. Later, first-century Greek elegists like Virgil and Propertius celebrated tears as signs of romantic fervor that could bring lovers close together. In the Hebrew Bible, tears of joy appear in a variety of narratives—such as when Joseph the dreamer is reunited with his beloved brother Benjamin after many years, and when the ancient Hebrews, released from Babylonian captivity, witness the rebuilding of their sacred temple in Jerusalem. As evidenced by such examples, it’s clear that people have long cried from joy.
Classic literary sources reveal the same truth. For example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a precocious child who learned Greek, Latin, French and Italian by the age of eight. But it was not until his mid-twenties that he astonished the Western literary world with the appearance of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther,in 1774. Written as a quasi-autobiography, it vividly portrayed its romantic hero as prone to outbursts of crying in his passion for life. “Oh, if only I could fall on your neck and describe with a thousand joyous tears all the emotions that are storming in my heart,” Werther writes exuberantly about his romantic ardor for Lotte to his friend Wilhelm.
Goethe’s fascination with tears of joy inspired later European and American writers, including luminaries like William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens in England, and the masterful Edgar Allen Poe in the USA. In a tantalizing essay called The Poetic Principle, Poe asserted that aesthetics—specifically painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, and especially music—all have the formidable power to make people cry. But what causes this phenomenon? In Poe’s view, our sense of the beautiful isn’t only innate, but linked vitally to the human longing for the transcendent: “When by poetry or music we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then…not [from an] excess of pleasure, but from our inability to grasp “those divine and rapturous joys of which” poetry or music gives us only “brief and indeterminate glimpses.” That is, Poe was suggesting that aesthetics, particularly music, gives us a heightened awareness of the gap between the most wondrous dimensions of human experience and our mundane daily life—and that this awareness causes us to cry.
New findings on tears of joy
Though psychologists have long ignored the role of positive emotions in healthy human functioning, this situation is rapidly changing. For example, Dr Rosemarie Anderson in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology identified nine characteristics of weeping associated with such feelings as gratitude, joy, and wonder. These included a sense of reconnecting with lost parts of one’s self, as well as a sense of inner freedom or vastness. Placing such experiences in a wide philosophical-religious context, Dr William Braud in the same journal linked joyful crying to such positive emotions as awe, compassion, gratitude, love, and yearning. Suggesting that such tears might be physiologically rooted in the human organism, Braud commented, “For me, wonder-joy tears are responses to encountering and appreciating what is truly important…an `empathy indicator’ or `compassion indicator’ or `gratitude indicator.’”
Over the past three years, I’ve led an international team to better understand the causes and potential benefits of tears of joy. Because this phenomenon had never been mapped before, our initial goal was to determine what types of situations actually cause people to cry in happiness—and our first empirical study involved men and women in India. As reported in the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, my colleagues Neeta Relwani Garg and Jenniffer Gonzalez Mujica and I found that nearly 85% of native Indians had cried in joy at least once in their lifetime. We also identified 18 different categories, including some we’d never anticipated. Most common were those involving non-romantic affection like attending someone’s wedding or graduation ceremony, followed in frequency by a personal achievement, the birth of a child, a reunion of any sort, romantic love, and identifying intensely with a movie or other medium. Less common in India were tears of joy elicited by observing a child, reflecting on one’s life, the recovery of a loved one from illness or injury, and aesthetic delight. Finally, only one or two people described such “triggers” as personal recovery from illness or injury, material gain, undergoing a religious experience, joining in group hilarity, or witnessing an act of moral goodness.
We also found that tears of joy aren’t rare, though national differences do exist. For instance, over 30% of American and Venezuelan adults reported that they had cried from happiness in the past month, and so did nearly 10% of over 250 Japanese college students. Generally people reported feeling better physically—and often, lowered mental stress—after experiencing tears of joy. Intriguingly, there was evidence that people who describe themselves as strongly emotional tend to cry in joy more often—and also to benefit more from the experience—than others.
Can you plan such outpourings of happiness? You can certainly increase their likelihood by recalling when you last cried in happiness and what triggered it for you. Were you alone or with others? How did your body feel as tears came forth? Your answers will best guide you to have such positive experiences in the future.
Dr Edward Hoffman is a New York based clinical psychologist and adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University. Dr Hoffmanmost recently wrote Paths to Happiness: 50 Ways to Add Joy to your Life Every Day. He has authored/edited more than 20 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman lives in New York City with his wife and their two children. His leisure interests include playing the flute and swimming.