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Mindful : December 2018
“WITHOUT TEARS, WE HUMANS WOULD NEVER HAVE BECOME THE EMPATHIC, ULTRA-SOCIAL SPECIES WE ARE.” Ad Vingerhoets, psychologist worsened mood.” And that, they say, challenges “theories of crying that posit its core function as providing benefits to the crier.” Those bene- fits come not from crying per se, but from the response to crying. That may explain why studies have found that people in romantic relationships cry more often, on average, than singles, and that lonely people cry less than those with more social attach- ments. Cord Benecke of Germany’s University of Kassel, for instance, has found that people who have relatively few social connections didn’t tend to cry often, perhaps because they feel there is no-one around to care. If people mostly cry when someone sympathetic and caring is around, and not into the void, it reinforces the idea that crying is a signal for social support. More years, different tears As we age, the causes of crying change. In infancy and childhood, tears elicit care, protection, and love, and can be aimed at a single individual— unlike audible crying, which can be heard by any- one within range (which could be dangerous). In adolescence, tears flow from loss and separation and disappointment. In adulthood, our capacity for crying expands to the suffering of others, as our empathic skills develop, as well as to reunions with loved ones. We cry over acts of heroism, altruism, self-sacrifice, and other virtuous behav- iors: During screenings of Titanic, the sound of sniffles and tissues being pulled out filled the the- ater when Leonardo DiCaprio floated away into the icy Atlantic so Kate Winslet could live. The purpose of these seemingly purpose- less tears may be to communicate to others that we feel deeply invested in society’s moral values, cementing our position in a larger social order as a member who deserves to be in good standing. “Tears are a signal to ourselves of our ultra-social nature,” says Vingerhoets. “They are not just a signal to others.” If we are able to cry, we are able to feel. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that from time to time, whether by the death of fictional wizards and witches, or by moments of pain and grief and heroism in the lives we lead and witness. ● December 2018 mindful 33