When I saw Jojo Rabbit I wept after the final scene. The woman next to me was crying, too, and, through her tears, turned to her partner with a smile and said, “That was so good.” She knew, like I do, that tears don’t always mean you’re feeling exactly sad. Sometimes they can be cathartic.
It’s not exactly clear why crying can be cathartic. Jonathan Rottenberg is the director of the Mood and Emotion Lab at the University of South Florida. Although he considers crying to be healthy behavior, researchers don’t really know what constitutes catharsis in crying. All they know for sure is that when people are surveyed, they report it serves as a release, and people generally report feeling better after crying.
“Anecdotally, people report that crying makes people feel better,” Rottenberg tells me. “But whenever we focus on individual crying episodes, like in a laboratory, there isn’t much evidence for benefits.”
In the paper “Is Crying Beneficial?” Rottenberg and colleagues reason that these results could stem from the fact that crying in a lab is rather different than crying in a place like a dark movie theater. It’s possible that the effects of crying are subject to the social context surrounding a crying episode.
To dive into this idea deeper, the team analyzed over 3,000 reports of recent crying episodes. In these, respondents described what was going on around them when they cried and the effects of crying on their mood. The majority of participants said they felt better after crying — but a tenth of them reported they felt worse. The key difference between these groups is that the former received some sort of social support during their cry, and the latter were made to feel embarrassed.
This suggests that the tension-and-release experience — also known as catharsis — of crying can’t be the only reason why one feels better after a blubber. Instead, receiving physical contact and solace from others after we cry could be a reason why there are beneficial effects.
In a different study, scientists analyzed how crying affected the moods of 5,096 students from 35 different countries. They learned that catharsis-linked crying can’t be explained by any single factor. However, people were more likely to feel a sense of catharsis if crying was linked to social support, experiencing a sense of resolution, or achieving a new understanding of the event that caused the crying episode.
It’s a quirk of the human condition that crying can be such a universal experience, yet we don’t really have the scientific evidence to explain what so many report to know: Crying can be beneficial if the reason you’re crying isn’t something that can hurt you further.