A Dynamic Whole
THE BENEFITS OF LAUGHTER AND CRYING
Two of the most potent forms of emotional expression known to humanity are crying and laughing. They are so universal that they must play a fundamental biological and/or behavioral role. We’ll explore both those roles here, shedding much light on what it means to be human.
Let’s begin with crying. Not just any crying, but crying from joy, sobbing with relief, trembling with trepidation, weeping out of sorrow . . . in short, crying as a release for intense feelings. Did you know that the chemical content of such emotional tears differs from that of “reflex” tears produced, for example, when we’re slicing an onion? Emotional tears contain more manganese and proteins--including the stress hormones prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
The result is often unmistakable. People feel better after they cry, and, not coincidentally, look better too. In one survey, 85% of women and 73% of men reported feeling less sad or angry after crying. A number of studies associate the ability to cry with improved health. Tears and laughter, one researcher asserts, “are two inherently natural medicines. We can reduce duress, let out negative feelings, and recharge. They . . . are the body’s own best resources.”
People differ quite a bit in their penchant for crying. Pioneering research done by Dr. William Frey, a biochemist in Minneapolis, shows that the frequency of crying in normal, healthy individuals ranges from zero to seven episodes per month for men and from zero to 29 episodes per month for women.
While fully half of the men surveyed said they never cry, only 6% of the women did. Contrary to what you might expect, Frey found that depressed persons don’t necessarily cry more than others and that women’s crying doesn’t necessarily correlate with their hormone levels. It is true that the tear glands of the sexes are structurally different, leading women to cry more profusely. And whereas men tend to tear up and cry quietly to themselves, women’s weeping is noisier and more visible.
Frey’s survey reveals that sadness accounts for 49% of people’s tears; happiness, 21%; anger, 10%; fear or anxiety, 9%; and sympathy, 7%. We can say with some assurance that crying originates in infancy, but by adulthood crying is more complicated and distinctive. Although crying may be done in front of other people, it is also done alone. One might ask: Is crying alone still a form of communication? I would answer yes. As author Tom Lutz observes, “Crying . . . occurs at times when we cannot put complex, overwhelming emotions into words. Tears can supplant articulation, which is why they offer release.”
When one cries to oneself, I would add, even more than a form of release it may be a way for the bodymind to convey a deeply felt message to ourselves. A person won’t be moved to cry, for instance, at a movie, play, or musical or narrative passage if that scene or passage doesn’t resonate deeply within. It simply may not connect with our experience, in which case weeping would be inauthentic. But a good cry will signal to whoever is around--and it may be only us--that something of importance is taking place.
However, a person can weep profusely and not feel better. Those who suffer from depression, for instance, can cry with no relief--and possibly feel worse for the effort. This is because depression is a form of inner immobilization, permitting little assuagement or relief. In contrast, sadness comes naturally to our bodymind and reflects a state of inner vitality in which feeling can flow.
There is another prism through which to view the purpose of crying: that of social communication, intimacy, and bonding. Psychologist Randolph Cornelius of Vassar College sees weeping in this sense as a search for resolution. People who are in need of being held, reassured, or having differences patched up will cry not only to express this need to others but also to try to gain some progress or resolution. If the resolution is not there, he says, they aren’t likely to feel better.
If we have reason to cry but cannot, the message our bodymind is sending will remain inside. That loss of emotional expression is not just unfortunate; it has very real health effects. It may also have longer-term psychic effects. Many ghosts are said to be moaning or weeping--plaintively searching, one might infer, for resolution. Whereas folk tales suggest that these are lost souls mourning for something they left behind in this world, I suspect the process has to do with biology. A person in whom the energy of feelings is stopped up--bodily as well as through issues unresolved between the neocortex and emotional brain--constitutes a likely trigger for anomalous occurrences. We know that crying involves the interaction of advanced parts of the brain with more elementary structures that control our basic physiology (e.g., the limbic system and brain stem). The inhibition of crying must be at least as complex.
A GOOD LAUGH
Laughter is also an incompletely understood subject though, like tears, a quintessential human trait. There are also some significant differences. Whereas crying mutates into different forms from its genesis in childhood--and takes place in more varied contexts--adult laughter is very close in form and function to its childhood antecedent. Also, the reasons we laugh are not as numerous as for when we cry. We can laugh out of a sense of kinship, friendship, frivolity, hilarity, or absurdity, but not out of any stronger feelings, such as fear, anger, love, or elation. Nor do we laugh out of any aesthetic sense; for example, upon hearing a powerful passage of music or being moved by the spirituality of a given place or experience. And while a good laugh is understood to be a valuable stress reliever, laughter per se is not nearly as “deep” as crying. It doesn’t put us in touch with our innermost selves.