Feb 12, 2014, 8:25 PM EDT
OCHI — Here’s a tricky one: Why do people cry when they are happy? This comes up a lot at the Olympics, as my wife Margo will break into tears at pretty much any point, including during the commercials. A couple of weeks ago, after watching figure skater Jason Brown pull off a near-flawless program at the trials, she broke down in tears. The best part was that when telling us about it later, she broke down in tears again.
This column will lead, by the way, to a story that definitely will make Margo cry again.
Why do we cry when we are happy? It turns out this is actually quite an involved question. I have an emigo — an email friend — named Indre Viskontas, who is both a neuroscientist and an opera singer, which makes her, more or less, the most amazing person on Earth. She is also a new mother, so she was up in the middle of the night to offer a pretty involved answer to this question.
The neurological reason we cry when happy, she says, relates to the “parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the autonomic nervous system that calms us down.” Which is exactly what I was thinking? One theory is that the system cannot really differentiate between different emotions; it only knows when it is emotionally overloaded. So the emotion could be fear, sadness, anger, pain or joy and if that emotion is intense enough it can trigger tears as a release.
“Usually, crying from joy comes after a stressful event – and signals the switch from fight or flight to relief and relaxation,” Viskontas says. “The more stressful the event, the greater the opposite response when the stress is relieved.”
That explains why everyone cried at the end of “Toy Story 3.” You know (spoiler alert), the toys were almost incinerated and then they were destined for the attic and instead they ended up at that little girls house, and Woody was going to go with Andy to college but instead … Okay, I have to stop now.
The more fascinating question is the psychological one. Why do we cry at all? There are disagreements. Viskontas says one theory is that crying is our body’s response to a perception of helplessness. You have to stretch a bit, though, to connect that with happy crying. A second theory is that crying is tied to other variable personality traits. This makes a lot of sense, since different people are more or less likely to cry.
But I think the most interesting theory is that crying connects us with each other. In this theory, we cry as a way to bond, a way to link our sadness or anger or fear or joy with the world. This idea speaks to me. Happy crying seems to me to come from a deep connection with someone or something, whether it’s Woody and Buzz getting a new child to play with at the end of “Toy Story 3,” or Dan Jansen winning that speed skating gold medal after a career of heartbreak, or that “Thank You Mom” commercial that shows mothers raising children who become Olympians. It’s as if simple happiness is not big enough to express the connection with something graceful or kind or plainly decent. So people cry.
That connection is particularly powerful for many at the Olympics. Everyone knows that the Olympic Games overflow with all sorts of negative things — corruption, waste, greed, on and on — but there is a strain of innocence and wonder, too. This is why so many people around the world care. The athletes, mostly, are not millionaires. They are regular people you know, people who have real jobs, people who sacrifice because they truly love their sports and deeply believe in an Olympic ideal they formed when they were children.
Russia’s Anton Gafarov is this kind of athlete. He’s a 27-year-old cross-country skier, and this is his first Olympics. He was not really a medal contender, but being able to compete here was incredibly important to him. “I couldn’t imagine my life without skiing,” he told reporters. “For me, skiing is like breathing.”
But Gafarov wanted to finish the race. So he pulled himself along. The sprint lasts about three and a half minutes. And so when the others had finished, he was still in the middle of the course, fighting his way step by step. It just didn’t seem like he would get there.
And then someone raced up to him. He was carrying a ski. That was Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian head coach. Wadsworth is actually an American — he’s a three-time U.S. Olympian — and he has a reputation as an open and warm person. He had taken the job to help build Canada’s fledgling cross-country team (no Canadian man has ever won an Olympic cross-country medal). Wadsworth’s team didn’t do too well on Tuesday — not one Canadian reaching the semifinal — and he wasn’t in the best mood.
But then, while rushing out to catch the end of the semifinal, he saw Gafarov trying to move forward. “It was like watching an animal stuck in a trap,” Wadsworth told the Toronto Star. Instinctively, he found a spare ski, and he rushed down to Gafarov.
Neither man said a word. There wasn’t anything to say. Gafarov stopped. Wadsworth kneeled down and removed the old ski. He put the new one on. And Gafarov took off toward the end.
Gafarov finished the race long after everyone else. But he finished.
“I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line,” Wadsworth said. He did not really understand why this was a story. Anyone would do it, he said.
But this is the thing, isn’t it? Anyone might wish they did it. But only one man actually did.
And right now, back in America, Margo is crying because – well, because maybe it is a way to connect with people and with something beautiful. Or maybe it’s just a parasympathetic nervous system response to a sweet story. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before the Olympics make her cry again.
Apr 22, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT
How Keflezighi spent the morning after his upset victory.
Apr 22, 2014, 1:57 PM EDT
Americans’ tactic played small role in Keflezighi’s victory.
Apr 22, 2014, 10:39 AM EDT
Sochi figure skating analysts will be fashion experts at Churchill Downs.
Apr 22, 2014, 10:11 AM EDT
Ohno follows NFL wide receiver, celebrity chef in ambitious attempt.
Apr 22, 2014, 8:21 AM EDT
Johan Bruyneel guided Lance Armstrong’s teams for all seven stripped Tour de France wins.
Apr 21, 2014, 8:42 PM EDT
“I needed it for healing,” one survivor said.
Apr 21, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
First U.S. man to win Boston Marathon since 1983.
Apr 21, 2014, 1:21 PM EDT
Meb Keflezighi made history on an emotional day at the 2014 Boston Marathon by becoming the first American man to win the race since 1983. Watch highlights of the 38-year-old Keflezighi’s victory here, courtesy of Universal Sports: Keflezighi reacts to his historic win and the emotion of winning one year after the Boston Marathon bombing,…
Apr 21, 2014, 11:54 AM EDT
Shalane Flanagan led early but was dropped around 21 miles.
Apr 21, 2014, 10:53 AM EDT
Paralympic champion prevails one month after winning silver in Sochi.
Apr 21, 2014, 9:58 AM EDT
Double the police presence from last year.
Apr 21, 2014, 9:38 AM EDT
Former linebacker ran in 2012 and saw the first bomb from a hotel last year.
Apr 21, 2014, 9:07 AM EDT
Race starts by honoring those lost and those who saved at last year’s race.
Apr 19, 2014, 12:10 PM EDT
Watch every runner cross the finish line on Monday.
Apr 19, 2014, 11:41 AM EDT
Two-time Olympian hasn’t run a marathon since the London Games.
Apr 18, 2014, 9:41 PM EDT
All eyes will be on a changed Boylston Street on Monday.
Apr 18, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Universal Sports will have live coverage and is on a free preview nationwide.
Apr 18, 2014, 8:30 AM EDT
Monday’s race figures to come down to two men.
Apr 18, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
An American with Massachusetts ties wants to win.
Apr 17, 2014, 1:59 PM EDT
Mark Wells previously sold his gold medal, too.
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