New York – Amid the worry and suffering wrought by COVID-19, tears of joy seem an unlikely topic for today’s news because they’re probably in short supply now. But my two studies with professor Hidekazu Sasaki of Utsunomiya University and others — involving nearly 600 Japanese men and women from teens through old age — offer important guidance for maximizing personal well-being during this stressful time.
First, the backstory: As an active international researcher/writer in positive psychology (popularly dubbed “the science of happiness”), I’ve long been interested in experiences so joyful that tears emerge. From narratives in such varied, ancient literary works as the Bible, the Greek Iliad, and the Sanskrit Mahabharata, it’s clear that people for millennia have cried in happiness.
Much later, 19th-century literary giants, including the English poet William Wordsworth and the American writer Edgar Allen Poe, gave thoughtful explanations about tears of joy. Yet, surprisingly, modern psychology had virtually nothing to say about this seemingly universal occurrence. As Abraham Maslow observed, it was as if the field had chosen to study only human misery, dysfunction and conflict — and ignored everything else.
Fortunately, scientific trends change with culture — and the role of positive emotions in human life is now gaining attention throughout the world. Specifically, there’s mounting evidence that just to avoid feeling lonely, worried or depressed isn’t enough: to really flourish, we’ve got to connect meaningfully with our milieu, especially with other people.
Growing medical research also shows that people with habitually high positive moods have better health and pain resistance, recover more quickly from illness and even possess greater longevity than others.
Over the past eight years, my research team has investigated tears of joy in a variety of countries including India, Venezuela, the United States — and, most recently, Japan. Based on individuals’ self-reports, we were surprised to discover 18 different “triggers” for this phenomenon, such as the birth of a child, romantic love, a reunion or an intense identification with a movie or other mass media narrative.
For most young Japanese adults today, their first experience involving tears of joy came from personal or group achievement: for example, excelling in a piano recital, or more typically, one’s team winning a school sports festival. As our co-author Yurie Igarashi of Alliant International University in San Diego comments, “In Japanese culture, teamwork is crucial and emphasized by school coaches. It’s therefore not surprising that tears of joy through group achievement are common in Japan.”
We’ve also focused on the question of commonality: How often do people actually cry in happiness? Does it vary much among individuals — and if so, what accounts for this difference?
Finally, what benefits do tears of joy actually bring? Do they help people feel better in any way? In that Japan has a worrisome rate of depression, it’s significant that Japanese college students and middle-aged adults who frequently cry in happiness are more likely to report feeling both reduced stress and greater physical relief after such an experience. In other words, their coping ability is enhanced.
What does all this mean in practical terms? Although it’s impossible to mandate tears of joy or guarantee their occurrence, we can boost our mood in this worrying time by deliberately recalling such moments from our recent or more distant past: a cherished award, a heartfelt reunion of family members or friends, a literary work/movie that made us dewy-eyed — even an exciting victory by our favorite sports team.
Indeed, positive psychology has invented a term called “retrospective savoring,” which describes the effort to activate delightful memories for current emotional benefit. Especially when combined with expressive writing — that is, journaling— such activity may provide a much-needed “pick-me-up.”
Edward Hoffman is an adjunct psychology professor at Yeshiva University; his books include “Paths to Happiness.”
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