The 4 Types of Tears of Joy
A new study reveals surprising insights about positive tears.
Have you ever cried because you were so happy you just couldn’t hold back the tears?
Many people have encountered situations in their lives that were so overwhelmingly positive that they could not stop the tears from falling. Despite how common such situations are, scientific research on tears of joy has been scarce. A new study now published as a preprint (Zickfeld et al., 2020) aimed to systematically investigate tears of joy.
To that end, the researchers used an impressively large international database. Altogether, data from 13,124 people from 40 different countries were collected, ensuring a culturally diverse outlook. Participants were asked to recall episodes in which they experienced tears in a positive situation. They then had to describe this situation.
Overall, the analysis of these reports revealed that four different types of positive tears exist:
Affectionate tears. This type of positive tears often occurs when someone experiences an unexpected amount of kindness and exceptional love—for example, during weddings. The main feelings associated with this type of positive tears are warmth, communality, and compassion. This was the most common form of positive tears in the study (about 55%).
Achievement tears. This type of positive tears often occurs in the context of an extraordinary performance—think winning a major sports event or being awarded an important prize. Also, they often occur when someone overcomes a major obstacle, such as finally getting out of unemployment and landing a job. The main feeling associated with this type of positive tears is pride. In the study, this type of positive tears occurred in about 29% of the observed cases of positive crying.
Beauty tears. This type of positive tears often occurs when something is perceived as overwhelmingly beautiful. This can include such things as natural wonders, experiencing a stunning music performance, or looking at a beautiful work of art. The main feeling associated with this type of positive tears is awe. This type occurred rather rarely—in about 8% of the cases.
Amusement tears. This type of positive tears often occurs in situations that are extremely funny: Think laughing so hard that you start crying. The main feelings associated with this type of positive tears are amusement and lightness. This was the rarest form of positive tears, at about 3%.
There was also a small subset of positive tears—about 5%—that could not be fitted into any of the four categories. The authors also found interesting cross-cultural effects: While people in more individualistic societies like the U.S. were more prone to amusement and beauty tears, people in more communal societies were more prone to affectionate and achievement tears. Moreover, gender also seems to affect positive tears, as women were in general more likely to shed tears in emotionally positive situations.
Sebastian Ocklenburg, Ph.D. is a lecturer in biopsychology at Ruhr University’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in Bochum, Germany. His research focuses on hemispheric asymmetries in the language and motor systems.