Sometimes, a good, cathartic cry happens all on its own, and sometimes you need a little help — you know it would feel so good to just ugly-sob for a bit, wipe the snot your face, and move on with your life, but the tears just aren’t quite coming. So you do whatever you need to do in order to get there: You conjure up some bad memories, or you watch a few gut-wrenching minutes of a movie scene, or you put on a playlist that tugs at your heartstrings in just the right way.
And then you let it all out, and it feels great. It’s something you might already be able to speak to from personal experience, but new research backs it up: A study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports found that crying to sad songs really does produce a measurable sense of pleasure in the listener.
In the first part of the study, participants filled out a short survey about four different reactions to music: “While listening to music, how frequently do you (1) get goose bumps, (2) feel shivers down your spine, (3) feel like weeping, and (4) get a lump in your throat?” Based on the responses, the researchers divided the volunteers into two groups, a tears group and a chills group, and had each person listen to six songs chosen to evoke an emotional response, including three that the subjects had picked themselves.
As they listened, the participants pressed a button whenever they felt the target reaction (chills for the chills group, tears for the tears group) and moved a mouse around on a screen to signal the amount of pleasure they were feeling; after each song, they rated how intensely they had felt their response and the emotional tone of whatever they had just listened to. Throughout the session, the researchers also monitored the volunteers’ heart rates and watched for other physical signs of arousal.
While chills and tears overlapped in some areas — both reactions caused deep breathing and pleasure in listeners — the songs that caused them were described differently: “A song that induced chills was perceived as being both happy and sad,” the authors wrote, “whereas a song that induced tears was perceived as sad,” as well as calmer. “These results show that tears involve pleasure from sadness and that they are psychophysiologically calming.” Think of it as a pick-me-up and a stress reliever in one simple step: Just find a private place and press play.