July 29, 2011 at 10:18 AM ET
It's truly a sob story for those prone to waterworks displays: Shedding tears only improved mood in one-third of cryers who kept tabs of their bawling behaviors, finds recent research.
Apparently weeping isn't the cathartic emotional release it's often cracked up to be, sniff, sniff. Please pass the tissues.
Science has previously looked into boo-hooing with mixed results: After viewers in a lab setting watched a sad film clip, weeping was rarely found to boost mood -- but this might not be the best place to burst into heartfelt tears. Other studies have asked participants to recall past crying episodes. But retrospective surveys might not necessarily reflect actual behavior since memory can be selective, and people might not remember those times when wailing made them feel worse.
This new study, currently published online in the Journal of Research in Personality, asked 97 women aged 18 to 48 in the Netherlands to keep a daily crying and mood diary over a two-to three-month period. Men were not included in this experiment because the data was originally collected as part of a larger trial exploring the link between crying and the menstrual cycle.
Each night, participants logged their daily mood, their urge to cry, and whether they shed any tears. If they wept, they kept further details of each sob session, such as the reason for it, how long it lasted, how intensely they bawled, where it occurred, whether other people were around and how they felt afterward.
Scientists ended up with 1,004 crying episodes to analyze: Their results showed that the average boo-hoo lasted eight minutes and took place in the living room, usually alone or with one other person present. Conflict, loss, or seeing others suffer were the most common triggers for tears.
For the majority of cases -- 61 percent of them -- sobbers reported no change in mood compared to how they felt before moisture streamed down their cheeks. Thirty percent experienced a better mood afterward and nine percent felt worse.
"Only a minority of crying episodes were associated with mood improvement -- against conventional wisdom," says Jonathan Rottenberg, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and the study's lead author.
The study found little evidence of any psychological payoffs from crying. But interestingly, it observed that participants who sobbed with the greatest intensity -- but not for the longest amount of time -- enjoyed the biggest bang from their bawling: Their moods benefitted the most from shedding tears.
"Crying is not nearly as beneficial as people think it is," says Rottenberg.
Rather than encouraging people to cry, it makes more sense, he suggests, to encourage them to bolster their social networks. "When crying helps it's likely not because of the tears but because it recruits social support and draws attention to important problems," explains Rottenberg.
While crying around one other person likely leads to comfort and active problem solving, sobbing around more people might spark feelings of shame, he says.
What's been your experience? How do you feel after a good cry?