Whether it’s at the happy ending of your favorite film or during the birth of your child, we’ve all cried tears of joy at some point in our lives.
As someone who cries at anything from a beautiful sunset to small gestures of kindness, I can safely attest that happy crying is very much an uncontrollable release of emotion.
And although there is still a hesitancy to appear ‘sensitive’ or ‘over-emotional’, we usually can’t help tears of happiness and most people apologize it away as if it’s something to be embarrassed about.
But the truth is, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes when it comes to our emotions.
And, as crying has many different benefits for our body, it seems that the confusing duo of happiness and tears makes perfect sense.
Read on to find out more about what the science is behind happy tears and how it’s perfectly normal to experience them from time to time.
Why do we cry when we’re happy?
There are a few reasons why we have an overwhelming, uncontrollable desire to shed a tear even though we feel happy or joyous. Studies into the matter explain how it’s impossible to resist because it’s an innate reaction within us:
Crying makes us feel better
You know that feeling when you finally burst into tears and it feels like a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders?
Well, it’s no coincidence that we feel that way when we cry, both for tears of happiness and sadness.
It’s believed that oxytocin and endorphins are released when we cry out of joy. These chemicals are our feel-good factors known as ‘happy hormones’.
Endorphins, for example, act as a natural pain-killer. Even though you aren’t in physical pain when you’re happy crying (unless you get stomach cramps, you know the kind), the release of this chemical can make your body feel great overall, hence the old saying “laughter is the best medicine”.
A study in 2017 found that:
“Endorphin release induced by social laughter may be an important pathway that supports formation, reinforcement, and maintenance of social bonds between humans.”
The research continues to explain how in animals, this might be grooming each other which reinforces their social bonds and releases endorphins, but in humans, contagious laughter can act in the same bonding way.
Oxytocin, on the other hand, is known as the ‘love chemical’. It’s released during things like childbirth or when people hug each other and it strengthens bonds, affection, and trust.
Happy crying with friends or family can strengthen the trust and love between you because the same chemical that is released during cuddling is activated, as are endorphins.
So, just as crying when you’re sad can lift your spirits, crying when happy can have soothing effects as your body naturally releases feel-good chemicals.
A lack of emotional regulation
People who suffer from a lack of emotional regulation might find that they cry easily even when they’re happy, simply because their body hasn’t learned to cope with intense emotions.
According to PsychologyToday:
“While there are many ways to influence one’s emotional state for the better, emotion regulation often involves what experts call “down-regulation,” or reducing the intensity of emotions.”
Without being able to reduce our emotions, they can run rampage and easily get mixed up and confused.
That’s why some people might angrily outburst for no reason, or fall into a heap of sobs at something which is meant to be funny or lighthearted.
In this case, it’s more about not having a handle on their emotions, and help should be sought to get back in control.
Sometimes, it’s simply a case of our brain being confused by the signals it receives because it can’t tell the difference between intense emotions.
Jordan Gaines Lewis explains more on why our brain might slip up and send the wrong signals:
“My teeny-tiny almond-sized hypothalamus can’t tell the difference between me being happy or sad or overwhelmed or stressed. Yours can’t tell the difference, either. All it knows is that it’s getting a strong neural signal from the amygdala, which registers our emotional reactions, and that it must, in turn, activate the autonomic nervous system.”
Put simply, there’s a part of the brain called the amygdala that recognizes strong emotions and sends signals to another part of the brain, the hypothalamus.
The job of the hypothalamus is to regulate your emotions by communicating with your nervous system, but here’s the catch – it doesn’t convey which emotion you’re feeling.
So, emotions like happiness, anger, or sadness are all signaled in the same way. It’s then the job of your nervous system to help you react to whatever is causing you stress.
You might have heard the term ‘fight or flight’. This is where the sympathetic part of your nervous system decides whether you face the issue head-on or make a hasty escape.
It’s essentially your body’s way of surviving tough situations, from life-threatening experiences to stress or fear.
Once the perceived ‘threat’ has lessened, the nervous system invokes the parasympathetic branch which calms the body down.
So essentially, your body receives a signal from the hypothalamus to the nervous system which is almost like a plea for help.
Emotions are running high and the hypothalamus wants you to calm down. What will help you calm down? The nervous system.
Therefore, even something like uncontrollable laughter or happiness can trick your hypothalamus into thinking that you’re experiencing emotions so extreme because it can’t distinguish what type of emotion it is.
And then the tears come on, and your body goes into a process of calming itself down and regaining balance over your emotions.
The more emotional among us might cry at the smallest of things (myself included) such as pictures of cute puppies or a beautiful painting in an art gallery, but in general happy tears tend to happen during major life events.
Weddings, graduations, concerts, the win of a favorite sports team, and childbirth are just a few of the times when people may cry collectively.
And what do all these things have in common?
A long, tumultuous build-up where things could go wrong, plans may get canceled, and the journey is bumpy and uncertain.
So when you finally get there, have that baby, or get that degree, it’s such a relief because all your hard work and effort has paid off.
This relief can be so overwhelming that even though you’re incredibly happy to achieve it, your body simply needs to release.
And, one of the best ways to release energy and emotion, other than screaming, is to cry.
Plus, the fact that you usually have an audience or people around means that crying is much more socially acceptable than screaming, even though there are still taboos around showing so much emotion in public.
Tears help other people understand our feelings
Crying, as much you might not like to do in front of other people is a sure-fire way to let them know that you’re experiencing intense emotions.
When we cry out of sadness, tears are a way to gain some sympathy and to let people know that we’re suffering and need some comfort.
But, when we cry during happy events, that need for comfort still sticks around. As one study found, we naturally want to share our overwhelming feelings with others because it helps us process our emotions and bond with the people around us.
Just as laughing or shouting are obvious signs of how we’re feeling, tears too can be a direct way to show our emotions.
So, whether it’s tears of joy to see an old friend at the airport or when you congratulate the newlyweds, crying does more than just ruin your makeup or bring on a stuffy nose.
It’s a direct signal to others that you share in their feelings, or are experiencing intense feelings of your own.
Most of us have experienced the feeling of wanting to squeeze tightly a cute baby or nibble their little toes.
It’s usually accompanied by the wistful expression of, “they’re is so cute I could just eat them!”.
I know when I pick up my cat for a cuddle I want nothing more than to smother her with kisses and rubs even if I have to hold back to avoid suffocating her.
So why does this happen when we come across cuteness or vulnerability?
That’s where the dimorphous expression comes into it.
Essentially, the dimorphous expression is when you experience two feelings at the same time. For example, crying when laughing is the perfect reference for it, just as wanting to squish babies or small animals lovingly.
You don’t want to cause harm to them – it’s usually the opposite which happens when you look at something adorable because you want to protect it.
So when you cry out of laughter, it’s the same paradox of two ‘opposing’ emotions, but what it signifies is that you are experiencing overwhelming feelings and you’re not sure how to deal with them.
Another reason why this is relevant to happy crying is to help other people understand our mental state. Dr. Oriana Aragón explains that:
“Even when you’re in opposition to someone else, it’s really important to understand kind of where they’re at. And we think that these dimorphous expressions, which come about only, it seems, in pretty intense emotional experiences, send a lot of information to onlookers as to what that person’s emotional motivational state is.”
In the end, it’s the tears that let other people know how intense our emotions are; it’s the difference between just being content or being ecstatically happy.
Have you ever cried just from seeing someone else cry?
When you’re watching a football match and the team wins, cries, and group hugs, it’s normal for fans to also tear up.
So why do we naturally do that?
Well, it could be our body’s way of showing empathy, and when there are many people happy crying together it can start to feel like we’re all connected.
It’s a bonding experience that can be hard to explain in scientific terms, but we just feel the intense emotions of happiness rippling through the crowd, and one way to be a part of it is to react in the same way that everyone else is.
And it doesn’t have to just be sports or big events like weddings. When a small child gets the present of their dreams and bursts into tears, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the adults around to also tear up.
Sometimes we mirror the reactions of the people around us because it lets them know that we understand and we go through the same emotions as them.
When I taught young children, we often shared tears of laughter and it was one of the best bonding experiences we had as a class.
From watching inspirational educational clips to laughing uncontrollably at a joke before dissolving into tears, it was a safe space to cry if needed, whether tears of sadness or happiness.
I cried when receiving cute presents for my birthday, and the kids learned that it was perfectly okay to feel overwhelming happiness and gratitude, even to the point of tears.
The bottom line is that we felt connected.
What if you never happy cry?
Not everyone cries when they’re happy.
And that’s okay. Not everyone reacts in the same way, and some people process their happiness and emotions differently.
Although you might feel like the odd one out in a room full of weeping people, it’s useless to try and force happy tears.
Instead, enjoy the feeling of joy in your way.
Whether it’s by smiling, jumping in the air, or simply staying calm, collected, and quiet, there’s no right or wrong way to be happy.
Happy tears are most definitely not through any fault of your own, and even though they might give you a runny nose and a blotchy face, it’s a sign that you’ve experienced intense joy.
One final thought on the matter is that the world around us changes so rapidly, and the truth is, we’re not as in control of our lives as we like to think we are.
From pandemics, natural disasters to something as beautiful as childbirth, life is a continuous lesson that we’re strong and capable, but even more so is mother nature and the universe around us.
Our tears may often be a reflection of feeling helpless or overwhelmed by the powerful forces around us, and since happiness can come in so many forms it’s understandable for the waterworks to kick in.
Indeed, sometimes great happiness can make us feel overwhelmed and not in control of ourselves and our emotions, especially if it’s something meaningful to us.
So instead of holding back those tears when you experience something wonderful and profound in life, let your body take its natural course and know that your tears are there to either soothe or enhance the experience.