Reprinted with permission by Dr. Mario Garrett
There is a hint of disgrace associated with crying, especially among older men. The stigma is not surprising since most scientific studies attempt to associate crying with depression. In fact, among older adults, depression is often not related to feeling sad. What emerges is that we know very little about crying. Not only is there no clear-cut association that crying is a sign of depression, there are also very few studies reporting the opposite—that crying has healing benefits, when crying is not a response to pain or anger.
A popular view is that crying can have a positive psychological as well as a physical benefit, a view shared in popular literature. In a review of 140 years of popular fiction, crying is promoted not only as beneﬁcial, but most warned readers that keeping back tears would harm them. Even Hollywood knows this and makes money selling us tearjerkers.
Lauren Bylsma now with the University of Pittsburgh, and her colleagues reported that when 4,000 men and women in more than 30 countries were asked about crying, most people—in retrospect—reported improved mood, reduced tension and feelings of relief after crying. But this report of benefits from crying is not repeated in a laboratory setting. When adults are made to cry in response to a sad film, report feeling worse—increased sadness and distress—than those who did not cry. Of course it could be a matter of timing. Using another example, people are more likely to report being relaxed an hour after jogging than immediately after. And the same might be the case with crying. There might be a time lag in reporting positive effects from crying.
And what about gender differences? Women cry more often and more intensely than men, although both report equal benefits. Interestingly what researchers have found is that people who suffer from alexithymia—the lack of understanding of emotions—reported fewer episodes of crying and reported less positive mood beneﬁts as a result of crying.
What is missing from these analyses is the fact that crying can be a social behavior. Many of us cry, some privately and infrequently, others more consistently and publicly. In some cultures there are criers who are paid to cry at funerals. There is a social context as well as a psychological one. Crying is also a learned behavior. Men are taught not to cry from an early age, while women elicit support and compassion when they cry. Social crying might be a form of social behavior in order to elicit empathy from others. And the cues of crying are so strong that even dogs express empathy when strangers are crying.
Crying among older adults is complex. There is evidence of benefits but it depends on who you are. If you are a happy person you gain more from crying than if you are a sad person, if you empathize you are more likely to benefit. There is also a positive social component to crying that women might have been exposed to more than men. The benefits of crying might reflect more who you are than what you are emotional about.
Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org