science of us

Would Life Be Better if I Cried More?

Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

I am not a crier, except in the case of panic attacks, which are mercifully rare nowadays. Occasionally a moving Cheerios commercial (which are always, for some reason, about the entire circle of life) will get me teary-eyed, but sad movies, sad music, and even most sad real-life events leave me mopey, but dry. In the fifth grade, after my family moved to the suburbs and I started a new school, I invited my new friends to sleep over and watch the just-released-to-DVD Titanic. They started weeping instantly, and never stopped. Eventually, assuming it was the fastest way to assimilate, I fake-joined them, dabbing my eyes with a tissue I did not need.

Since then, I have faked crying more times than I care to admit. Sometimes I pretend to have just finished crying, and sometimes I really do feel like I might cry, and maybe faking it will trick my body into doing it for real. The only piece of media that has made me teary in the last five-ish years was Coco, because you’d have to be dead not to tear up during Coco. But there have been so many other things I wished moved me to tears — especially since meeting my crybaby girlfriend, and noticing how endearing I find it whenever she wells up at, like, any sporting event of any kind. It sounds bad to say that her crying makes me love her more, but it is also true. Ad Vingerhoets, a clinical psychologist who focuses on stress and emotion, confirmed it: crying gets you places.

“Crying is very effective to solicit care and attention and comfort from others,” he says. In a 2016 study, for instance, Vingerhoets found that subjects felt more connected to visibly tearful people, and that subjects also perceived those people as more friendly, and more in need of help, than non-criers. This is not to say that crying always gets you what you want (although it usually works for babies), or that not crying means you’re doomed to a life of solitude — it’s more complicated than that, says Vingerhoets.

“It is well known that social support is extremely relevant for our well-being,” he says. “In that sense, not crying might have a negative impact on your health, if it’s not compensated by other ways to solicit the necessary support from others.” And that’s a big if — many, if not most, people who aren’t quick to cry will have come up with other ways to let people know they need support. (Like whining, for instance.) Crying may be a useful shorthand, but it’s not the only way — and, unfortunately, it can’t really be taught, says Vingerhoets. Proneness to cry (or not) is a trait you’re more or less born with, and while it might shift some over your lifetime, it isn’t really up to you how much, or when.

Most men, and some women, tend to cry more as they get older. “The older men become, they become more prone to cry,” says Vingerhoets. “For females, it seems to be a bit different story. We have some data that suggest that some women tend to cry more with age, but others stay at the same level, and as a group, they seem to decrease their crying frequency, so it’s a very diverse picture.” The most plausible explanation for this difference, Vingerhoets says, is the presence of testosterone, which may work as a sort of crying-suppressant, and which begins to decrease in men after the age of 30.

There are, of course, other factors which affect one’s likeliness to cry (depression, stress, PTSD, even homesickness), says Vingerhoets, but again, none of these are things you really want, and the type of crying I’m looking to do more of isn’t borne of actual suffering. I’m jealous of the perceived release such crying brings, and, fine, the attention, but I don’t want to experience any more sadness than is absolutely necessary. And as for other kind of crying — the moved-by-athletic-achievement kind, or what Vingerhoets calls “sentimental crying” — it seems this may be a classic grass-is-greener situation. Those who cry easily crave control while those with too much control envy the crier’s helpless submission to their emotions. But according to Vingerhoets, neither group is likely to make get very far trying to cross that fence. So, it seems, instead of learning how to cry my feelings, I will be forced to continue communicating them. Ugh.