Imagine you are watching a very sad movie. Like many people you may not shed a tear during the parts that are sad, but you cry at the happy ending. Why would you cry only at the happy ending and not at the scenes that are sad? We expect that people might cry when they are distressed, physically or emotionally hurt, sympathizing or empathizing with another person who is suffering, or overwhelmed by emotion. One theory about why people cry at happy endings involves the notion that we unconsciously hold back our emotions until it is relatively safe to express them.1 Thus, at a happy ending, when you are no longer threatened by distress and can safely experience it, the energy that is used to hold back the emotion is then lifted and the expression is relieving. Even so, as the theorists note, this is likely only one of many reasons why people cry at happy endings.
Affect psychologists would assert that tears, which can be independent of the facial display of distress—downturned mouth, trembling and wrinkled upper lip—can be triggered by the density of memory that is brought to mind by an event, including one that is happy.2, 3 In this case, a touching moment, such as a wedding or even a television commercial, activates emotional memories that can create tears. As well, you can shed “tears of joy” which, technically, is the affect of enjoyment-joy that is characterized by a diminishment of neural stimulation, or they can also signal the release or relief of distress, shame, or anger2
Another curious notion is that smiling can make you happy, as opposed to waiting to be happy so that you can smile. The many emotions that have to do with happiness, including elation, gladness, relief, joy, bliss, and amusement are represented by a similar facial expression: a smile.4 These positive emotions provide an immediate but brief surge of pleasure of varying degrees and quality, and, like all other emotions, they motivate you. The visual sight of a smiling face retrieves from memory a specific trace of how the individual experienced the feedback from the muscles of his own face when he smiled in the past.5 As well, any memory or anticipation of joy or enjoyment, or arousal of excitement, may evoke your own smile.2
While happiness creates a smiling facial expression, it is also true that a facial expression that closely resembles the pattern of muscles that are used to express happiness can cause you to experience a corresponding emotion.4 Some theorists maintain that cognitively you do not even have to know that you have a particular expression on your face for the “facial feedback effect” to occur; that is, the physiology of a particular facial expression can affect your emotional experience.5, 6 Thus, smiling can make you happier. You might want to try it by loosely holding a clean pen, straw, or your finger with your teeth, parallel to your mouth. The facial expression created is similar to a smile—an expression of happiness—and the facial feedback effect can trigger a positive emotional response in your brain. Whether or not it works for you, it certainly can’t hurt to put a smile on your face, at appropriate times, of course.
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1 Weiss, J., & Sampson, H. (1986). The psychoanalytic process: Theory, clinical observations, and empirical research. New York: Guilford.
2Tomkins, S.S. (1963/2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.
3 Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
4 Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Holt.
5 Ekman, P., Levenson, R., & Friesen, W. (1983). Autonomic nervous system activity distinguishes among emotions. Science, 221, 1208–1210.
6 Strack, F., Stepper, S., & Martin, L. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768–777.