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Surprising Science

Tears of joy are the body’s attempt to establish emotional equilibrium

The momentousness of certain situations can undo us.

In 2014, Switzerland's Dario Cologna wiped away tears after winning gold in the Men's Cross-Country Skiing. Photo credit: ODD ANDERSEN / AFP / Getty Images

As with so many subjects having to do with with nature and science, your emotions are always in relentless pursuit of a state of balance. This is what Yale psychologist Oriana Aragon found during a recent study for which she was the lead author. She began with a question: Why is it that so many happy occasions elicit tears, which we often associate with sadness?

From YaleNews:

“There are many examples of responding to a positive experience with a negative emotion. A crying spouse is reunited with a soldier returning from war. Teen girls scream at a Justin Bieber concert and so do soccer players as they score a winning goal. The baseball player who hits a winning home run is pounded at home plate by teammates. And when introduced to babies “too cute for words,” some can’t resist pinching their cheeks.”

Aragon’s research, published in the journal Psychological Science, determined that the body attempts to rope in these intense emotional experiences with inverse reactions. The goal is to restore a state of emotional equilibrium. This also may explain why we do the opposite when faced with negative stigma. How many times have you responded to an awkward situation with a tepid laugh?

At this point, someone often asks, “now why’d we need a study for that?” The answer is two-fold. First, it’s important that humanity elects to pursue its lines of curiosity. The scientific method isn’t just about finding cures for cancer or sending rockets to the moon. It’s about satiating the wonder we have about life. Second, as Aragon notes, her new discoveries could help people better understand what fuels their emotions. Most people acknowledge that they cry at weddings or stomp their feet during a sports match. Not many know why.

“‘These insights advance our understanding of how people express and control their emotions, which is importantly related to mental and physical health, the quality of relationships with others, and even how well people work together,’ she said.”

Read more at YaleNews.


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