Is crying a healthy behavior? Maybe yes, maybe no. Recently, Vingerhoets and Bylsma (2016) wrote an excellent and comprehensive article on crying.
We all cry. It is one of the first behaviors we express as infants to get someone to notice us by attending to our needs and offering comfort. Certainly, crying often happens when we feel physical pain. Beyond infancy, we may cry out of frustration when we are either incapable or prevented from getting what we want—as in the case of a child who wants to eat more cookies, but who can’t reach the cookie jar, or whose parent takes away the bag of cookies.
As we grow older, we cry for other reasons, which encompass both negative and positive experiences. With increasing age, we start to develop interpersonal relationships and derive feelings generated from them. Our interactions with others impact how we feel in general, and more specifically about ourselves.
Cathy, Anna, and Nancy are in the 7th grade. When Cathy was the first one invited to Anna’s birthday party, she felt special and cried. When Nancy found out that she was not invited, she cried because she felt hurt and rejected.
Interpersonal relationships have the effect of producing crying behavior when there is a loss related to that relationship; for instance, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a break-up. Crying is a behavioral response to sadness, as well as other possible emotions, such as loneliness, rejection, or abandonment.
Throughout adulthood, a single emotion is unlikely to stimulate crying behavior; there is usually a set of emotions present. For example, feeling helpless elicits tears when an individual is also feeling anger, fear, or sadness. Tears may be a reflection of one's inability to cope with a situation.
Tears are shed not only for our own benefit, but also on behalf of others. This reflects our own psychosocial and moral development. When we watch a movie about a mother sacrificing her life to save her child, or hear a story about an impaired person being wrongly convicted of a crime and punished, we may well generate empathic tears. We feel for the “pained” individual. These situations stimulate our empathic responses of care and sympathy.
We may also cry when we hurt others. By doing so, we are displaying our feelings of regret in response to our moral compass of how we should treat people.
Tears do not always stem from unhappy or painful circumstances. There can be tears of joy, both for ourselves and others, or of relief: The student who desperately needs to pass an exam and then achieves an “A," or the parent who hears that his child’s operation is a success.
Tears of joy may also appear out of sheer jubilation or gratifying events that give meaning to a person’s life: A young dancer who dreamed of appearing on the stage and then is selected for the cast of a Broadway musical after many rounds of auditions, or the mother of a son who informs her that she will soon be a grandmother.
Tears of joy can be expressed when we share in the happiness of others. We have all heard about people who always cry at weddings or when hearing about the birth of a child. Once again, crying is a way by which we express our empathic connection to others when they are celebrating such wonderful occasions, which may also elicit our own personal joyful memories. A work of art (e.g., painting, music, and dance) can also produce tears stimulated by beauty and appreciation.
It should be noted that there are other situations in which one may cry not out of joy or pain, but as an intentional, disingenuous display of upset or remorse. Such “actors” aim to use their tears to achieve a desired response from others—that is, their intention is to manipulate others for their own personal gain.
An individual has a lengthy history of arrests and convictions for robbery, burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon. During the trial for his most recent arrest, he starts crying profusely in front of the judge, saying how sorry he is for what he did, and that he has now “seen the light” and promises never to offend again. Soon after, he is observed laughing and talking about how he hopes to get probation.
There are beneficial qualities to crying, even in cases of genuine pain. Crying allows people to release their feelings and hopefully achieve relief or satisfaction. It also sensitizes others to the individual’s emotional condition and encourages their support. Moreover, crying has a physiological effect on the body, such as releasing neurochemical substances that can improve mood.
When people shed tears out of pain or joy, crying is an emotional response to a psychological condition. Its importance cannot be minimized. It may reflect normal psychological functioning. It may also be a symptom of a serious illness, such as depression, for which professional treatment should be sought.
Perhaps Washington Irving said it best: “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., & Bylsma, L. M. (2016). The riddle of human emotional crying: A challenge for emotion researchers. Emotion Review, 8, 207-217. Available at: