Why Do We Cry? We Asked an Expert All About Its Underrated Benefits

The last time something brought you to tears, you were probably more focused on what hurt you than the possibility that crying can be good for you.

Crying may not be fun, but there are important reasons we do it. We reached out to Matt Lilley, author of Why We Cry: The Science of Tears, to find out all about the purposes that crying serves, and how the act of crying can bring people together and help you reach a better understanding of your emotions. Keep reading to find out more.

Sweety High: What exactly is the biological purpose of crying? 

Matt Lilley: Crying is a very basic human behavior. Pretty much everyone cries sometimes, so it's really interesting that we don't totally understand crying. A lot of research is still being done to understand exactly what crying is all about. There are different theories that crying does things like release chemicals into our brains that make us feel better. There is also some evidence that crying can help us work through stress. However, the research is still ongoing.


(via Unsplash)


SH: What are the different types of crying?

ML: We have three different types of tears: basal, reflex and emotional. Basal tears are the tears that we produce all the time, to keep our eyes moist. Reflex tears are tears that we produce in response to a physical injury. Emotional tears are tears produced by strong emotions, such as joy, anger or sadness. Within that category of emotional tears, there's a lot of variation. People can cry emotional tears for all sorts of reasons.


SH: Is it true that humans are the only animals that cry? Why is that?

ML: With a few possible rare exceptions, humans are the only animals that cry. A lot of other animals can do things like crying. For example, dogs can whimper, and other animals can produce tears in their eyes, such as in response to a physical injury. Only humans are known to produce tears in response to strong emotions.

This is probably related to our social nature. Humans don't normally exist apart from each other. Instead, we exist as part of a community. This could be a large community, such as at school, or this can be a small one, such as in our family. Either way, communication and social connections are very important to us. Communication is most important when our emotions are running high. Crying gets people's attention. It's a nonverbal way of saying, "Pay attention! This is important!" Tears communicate this without any words. When we're crying, all someone has to do is look at us, and they know that something is up. Crying is a way to send a very strong signal to others that we need help, and that we need to connect with others.


(Stranger Things via Netflix)


SH: Are certain types of people more inclined to cry than other types?

ML: Pretty much everyone cries. Some medical conditions can prevent people from crying, but other than that, we all cry. Some studies have found that females cry more often than males. This could be for many reasons, including how people report their own crying to the study. It's possible that males are just less likely than females to admit to their crying. If the males don't report their crying as often, then the results would show less crying for them. Male tears might be more likely to go unreported.

Another possible reason might be that females tend to be more comfortable showing their emotions. If you show your emotions more, then you might cry more often. Another reason that females might cry more often is that females tend to be more social than males. If crying is a social behavior, and females are more social, then it makes sense that they would cry more.

And then there are hormones. It's possible that estrogen, a hormone that females have more of, makes a person more likely to cry. It's also possible that testosterone, a hormone that males have more of, makes a person less likely to cry.

Of course, these are all generalizations. Everyone is unique and there's no "right" amount of crying. The important thing is being true to ourselves. Tears can show up with a wide range of strong emotions. Any time we feel strongly enough about something to cry, it's important to respect those emotions, in ourselves and others.

Another factor that can affect crying is age. As we get older, the reasons we cry change. When people are younger, they are more likely to cry in response to physical pain. Older people might cry from physical pain, too, but the pain might have to be greater to trigger that response. Again, this probably has to do with connections. A toddler with a skinned knee needs help to taken care of it. A grown-up with a skinned knee can probably handle it on their own.

One surprising health reason that might make someone unable to cry is depression. Studies have shown that while people with mild depression sometimes cry more often, people with extreme depression might not cry at all. We tend to associate crying with both depression and sadness, but they're not the same thing. Someone with depression might want to cry but be unable to. Depression can make us feel like we are disconnected from the rest of the world, and that can include being disconnected from our own emotions and tears.

One sign of depression that a lot of people are unaware of is anger. Instead of crying, a depressed person might appear angry a lot. This is why it's important for someone who may have depression to see a medical professional—the signs can be hard to pick up on by the average person. A depressed person might need to make the kind of connections that crying can help with, but their medical condition could be preventing that from showing.


(My Hero Academia via JNN)


SH: What's the deal with happy crying?

ML: We might cry because we're happy or because we're sad. Why both? If crying is about making social connections, then both happy and sad occasions can be important times for making new connections. Think of a sad time, like if your best friend were moving away. Crying might help you make a stronger connection with her, so that even though she's far away, you'll still keep in touch. Now think of the opposite—your best friend just moved back after being away for a long time. Either way, your tears show her that she's important to you and help reinforce that connection.

Another reason we might cry when we're really happy is that we're not just happy. Our strongest emotions don't fit into neat little boxes like happy or sad. The things that make us the happiest are things that we earned after a struggle. If we don't work hard for something, it doesn't have the same value. When you achieve something difficult, like winning a championship, you think about the struggle, and that happiness is mixed with the frustration and the sadness from all your hard work. So even if you cried from happiness, you weren't just happy, you were feeling other strong emotions, too.


SH: What are some of the benefits of crying you might not be thinking about when you're in the moment?

ML: If crying does one thing, it's forcing us to pay attention. If someone else is crying, you'll pay attention. If you're crying, people will notice. And if something makes you cry, you should try to understand why. Sometimes we really don't want all that attention, but there it is anyway.

Society needs more empathy, which is the ability to share and understand one another's feelings. All that attention that crying brings also brings us a chance to empathize with each other. If we all had more empathy, the world would be a much better place. So when crying gives us that chance to empathize, we should try to use it. Sometimes we need to get more in touch with our own emotions, too. If something brings us to tears, even when we don't want it to, we should take that as a chance to understand ourselves better.


SH: Are there times it makes sense to hold back our tears, and other times when it's best to let ourselves cry?

ML: It's always okay to hold back tears when you want to keep your feelings to yourself or avoid embarrassment. Realistically, some times are better than others for crying. But it's very important to remember that tears come from powerful emotions. Anything that makes us feel such powerful emotions must be very important to us. So if something makes us feel like crying, it's important that we pay attention and try to understand why we're feeling those emotions. Sometimes it might make sense to hold back tears in public, but then when the time is better, we should allow ourselves to feel those emotions.


SH: What other aspects of crying do you find particularly interesting?

ML: During my research, I came across the idea of crying as a distance regulator. While it does help us make connections, it can also push people away. It can bring close people closer, but might have the opposite effect on people who are not that close. Think about how you react if you see a stranger crying. You probably worry about if they're okay or not, but you're not sure if you should try to help or leave them alone.

I think a lot of the time people want to help, but they don't feel like they can because they don't have this closeness. If you don't know the person or why they are crying, then you don't know what to do, if anything. If you do see a stranger crying, you can try to empathize with them. Think about how that would feel if that were you, and how you would want other people to react. You might offer to talk to them but also respect their privacy if they want to be left alone. If you think the situation might be dangerous for some reason, you should seek help from a trustworthy grownup.


Ready to embrace your emotions? Click HERE to learn the reasons you should make vulnerability your superpower.