Nearly all of us cry sometimes. But what makes us cry, how often we do it, and how it makes us feel varies hugely from person to person. According to Jonathan Rottenberg and colleagues, crying in general, and particularly how crying makes us feel, are surprisingly under-researched aspects of human behaviour.
Rottenberg's team asked 196 adult Dutch women (aged between 17 and 84 years) to answer questions about their personalities, their mental health, their propensity for crying and how crying made them feel.
Consistent with past research, people who reported being more neurotic, extravert and/or empathic tended to cry more often and more easily. The research was correlational, so it's not clear if having these personality types leads to more crying, or if crying more contributes to these personality types. Perhaps surprisingly, mental health, in terms of reported depression, anxiety and so forth, was not associated with how often or easily people said they cried.
When it came to the effects of crying, the pattern was the other way round. Aspects of personality were not associated with how the participants said crying made them feel, but mental health was. While the majority of the participants (88.8 per cent) said that crying brought them relief, a minority, especially those with depression, anxiety, anhedonia (a loss of the ability to experience pleasure), and/or alexithymia (a difficulty expressing or processing emotions), said that crying left them feeling worse or just the same.
The researchers said more work was needed to find out why crying brings relief to some people but not others. "Currently there is only anecdotal evidence that learning how to cry and how to derive positive effects from it could help people who are having difficulty expressing sadness or crying," they wrote.
J ROTTENBERG, L BYLSMA, V WOLVIN, A VINGERHOETS (2008). Tears of sorrow, tears of joy: An individual differences approach to crying in Dutch females Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (5), 367-372 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.05.006