Q&A: What Causes Happy Tears?

Ellie Handler
By Ellie Handler March 29, 2015 20:01

Q&A: What Causes Happy Tears?

Tears of joy are a common phenomenon, though in the moment, we often do not understand why they are happening. A recent study led by Yale postdoctoral associate Oriana Aragón may help solve this mystery.

Aragón’s team found that crying when happy is an example of a dimorphous expression, or a negative reaction meant to balance a positive emotion. The team’s findings offer one explanation for our unexpected sensitivities. The body is in a constant struggle to maintain a middle ground between emotional highs and lows. Intense emotions drive us out of this state of equilibrium, but tears of joy and other dimorphous expressions help us regain control of our feelings. These expressions include common negative or aggressive behaviors in response to highly positive emotions, such as crying at graduations or wanting to pinch babies’ cheeks.

We become accustomed to the phenomenon of tears of joy at a young age. Even children understand it to be commonplace. Image courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science.

We become accustomed to the phenomenon of tears of joy at a young age. Even children understand it to be commonplace. Image courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science.

In her study, Aragón sought to determine whether dimorphous expressions could help explain tears of joy. She found that people who show a desire to pinch babies’ cheeks are more likely to cry during happy events, which suggests that people have different dispositions towards dimorphous expressions. In another survey, she determined that the participants who experienced strong positive emotions while viewing images of babies were more likely to show aggressive responses as a balancing mechanism.

Together, Aragón’s findings indicate that the body may use dimorphous expressions to regulate itself after intense positive emotional stimulus. We cry when we are happy to manage our own emotions, keeping us in a pleasant state of control.

Cover Image: People frequently cry at seemingly inappropriate occasions, such as the graduation of a child or the wedding of a friend. Image courtesy of Alamy.

Ellie Handler
By Ellie Handler March 29, 2015 20:01