Researchers at Yale have discovered there’s an actual scientific explanation for tears of joy.
Chances are you have found yourself crying during a moment of joy. Maybe you got misty at the last wedding you attended. Or you felt weepy watching a heart-touching scene in a movie.
It can be confusing to have a negative emotion in response to a positive feeling. But now, researchers at Yale can explain why many of us experience those seemingly contradictory emotional responses.
Oriana Aragon, the psychological scientist who led the study, says it’s our brains’ way of creating emotional balance when faced with overwhelming feelings.
“People may be restoring emotional equilibrium with these expressions,” Aragon said. “They seem to take place when people are overwhelmed with strong positive emotions, and people who do this seem to recover better from those strong emotions.”
“Dimorphous expressions”—what researchers term those oddly disparate responses to stimuli, such as weeping when we’re elated—help us keep our emotions in check when we’re flooded with feelings that might otherwise feel too intense.
Researchers also cited examples of aggressive behaviors accompanying positive feelings. For example, most of us are familiar with the sudden urge to pinch the cheek of an adorable baby, or wanting to, in the words of many participants in the study, “eat them up.”
That seeming polarity in responses to a rush of emotions is the brain’s way of keeping our emotional temperatures in the proper zone. Subjects in the study were better able to return to a neutral emotional state in a short period of time as a result of having paired seemingly conflicting emotions to certain stimuli.
The study also found that the idea held true in opposite conditions as well; for example, people who are feeling very sad may laugh or smile.
“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,” Aragon said.
So the next time you find yourself inexplicably giggly as you deliver bad news, or suddenly verklempt as you watch a particularly uplifting commercial, at least now you know there’s a scientific explanation.