Why Are We Moved to Tears of Joy?

"It is a surprising and very beautiful fact about our species that each of us can be moved to tears by the sight of a stranger helping another stranger. It is an even more beautiful fact that these feelings sometimes inspire us to change our own behavior, values, and goals." ~ Jonathan Haidt

Have you ever been so happy, so moved, so inspired, or so touched that you were brought to tears?

I sure have. In fact, it happens quite often. The highlight of my joyful tears happens annually during the holiday season. We talk about this night all year-long, excited for all the heart-warming tender moments of feeling touched by the poignancy of life that we get to share. Every year around the holidays, after singing songs together, my family snuggles up under knitted blankets, while the snow falls quietly outside. We pass around the tissue box in preparation as we settle in to watch our holiday movies, movies that pull at our heartstrings and have us contemplating the deeper questions of life. At the end of the night, every year, we pull out the same children's book about the love between a family and pass it to my dad. Even though we almost have the entire story memorized, year after year he continues to read it and we see how far we can get until all of us are in tears, which quickly leads to laughter and hugs at the silly sight of us all. We may be on the sappier side of families, but these are our treasured moments.

"There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love."

~ Washington Irving

Why is it that us humans are able to cry not only out of sadness, pain, and loss, but also out of joy when we feel deeply moved? Whether to was attending a wedding, the homecoming of a loved one, hearing a courageous story of kindness, witnessing the poignancy of the human condition, listening to a cinematic song, or watching one of those inspiring viral youtube videos that fills you with hope about humanity, when was the last time you found your eyes welling with tears of joy?

For some time now, I’ve been curious to find a word that exemplifies this feeling. Could it be poignancy? Bittersweetness? Warm-heartedness? Tender loving care? Verklempt? Moral elevation? The feels?

Before discussing the nuances of these feelings, I want to share a few things about tears. Different types of tears actually have different chemical compositions. Science generally categorizes tears into three distinct types. Basal tears are released continuously to keep the eye lubricated. Reflex tears are released in response to an irritant, such as getting exposed to dust, smoke, or cut onions. Then there are the tears of intense emotion, whether we deem them 'positive' or 'negative' emotions. All three of these types of tears are comprised of distinctly different components.

Emotional tears contain more protein-based hormones, such as prolactin, than the other types of tears, as well as the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, an endogenous (meaning, 'of the body') painkiller. Enkephalins help to reduce pain, calm the nervous system, and boost mood. In this way, one theory about the purpose of tears is to help reduce stress on the system and release the emotional tension. In the case of happy tears, psychologist Oriana R. Aragón thinks that the enkephalins released in tears may help to further heighten positive emotions, perhaps encouraging catharsis (source).

Some theorize that our brain doesn't always know the difference between strong positive and negative emotions. The hypothalamus, a small part of the limbic system, has a role in regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. It is the parasympathetic nervous system (think: rest and digest) that controls the lacrimal glands (think: tear ducts) through the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The hypothalamus also responds to emotion through signals from the amygdala and it is here that sometimes happy or sad emotions might not be fully differentiated. According to Jordan Gaines Lewis, a professor of psychiatry at Penn State, "when happy and sad signals get their wires crossed, this activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us calm down after trauma and releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine tells our tear ducts to get busy. So we cry" (source).

Jordan Gaines Lewis explains that "a more recent theory by Hasson suggests that crying is a social cue designed to show vulnerability, solicit sympathy from bystanders, and advertise social trust and a need for attachment" (source). This would then make sense for both happy and sad tears, "biology’s way of tearing down barriers and facilitating bonding" (source).

The tree which moves some to tears of joy

is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.

~ William Blake

In an exquisite photography series of 1000's of tears over an eight-year period, Rose-Lynn Fisher, created The Topography of Tears. After she had completed a series of previous photography projects, one of which featured a bee under extreme magnification, she came to the realization that “everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg, visually, so I had this moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder what a tear looks like up close?’ (source).

And so she started taking photo after photo of her and her friend's dried tears, tears of sadness, tears of joy, and tears of elation, onions, rejection, sorrow, yawning, laughing, and so on. As she reviewed them, they began to appear to her similar to aerial shots of large-scale landscapes, and thus she started seeing her tear photos as "aerial views of emotional terrain" (source). The images that resulted will astound you. Here are a few examples, but be sure to check out her website and her book, The Topography of Tears.