Are Tears a Luxury?

Every once in awhile, I read something that gives me pause.  The latest was on the New York magazine’s “Science of Us” page on its website.  An article entitled “Tears Are a Luxury Item” disc17-culture-tears.w536.h357.2xusses recent research on an unlikely topic — why we cry.

This question goes back to Charles Darwin.  He tried to understand crying, to the point of wondering about other species.  (Have you ever seen a monkey shed a tear?)  An early conclusion was that people in colder climates were less likely to cry than those in warmer environs.  A much more recent (2011) study on “Culture and Crying” found distinct cultural differences — “Individuals living in more affluent, democratic, extroverted, and individualistic countries tend to report to cry more often.”  They found some identifiable trends — Australian and American men cried the most, for example, with Nigerian, Bulgarian, and Malaysian males the least likely to cry.  Among women, the weepiest were in Sweden, with the least crying among the fair sex in Ghana and Nepal.  Actually, countries with the most gender parity cried more overall than those with less equality.

Then the researchers made some interesting conclusions about socioeconomics.  “Rather than being the habit of the wretched of the Earth, weeping appeared to be an indicator of privilege – a membership perk enjoyed in some of the world’s most comfortable and livable societies,”  Does that mean war, destitution, poverty, etc. in less privileged societies don’t bring on tears, yet having a bad day at work in the first world somehow does?  Perhaps, when you’re a citizen in a violent country dealing with some pretty grim  situations, you realize crying isn’t going to help.

Biology may be a factor, too.  Crying has long been thought to be a biological response to sadness, frustration, or anger.  But in comfortable societies, crying might work the other way — you see something that is upsetting and then you cry.  Either way, remember this the next time you’re sad over how bad your day was.

Perhaps crying really is a luxury.

The photo is from the New York magazine website.

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