The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


“Would you mind if I cry a little?” she asks.

It’s 3 a.m. on Christmas night, and everyone has gone to bed. Helena, an aging and wealthy actress, and her philosophical friend Isak, sit together on a damask sofa, drinking cognac. Isak is nodding off. But Helena, a little drunk, a little sentimental, wants to talk—about her children, and their debts and infidelities. About time passing. About getting old. She asks if she might cry.

Isak nods sagely and puts his arm around her. They sit poised for a moment in this familiar tableau, waiting for the tears to flow. She looks upward, blinks rapidly, sighs. She makes a little pushing noise, as if she’s trying to squeeze a droplet or two out of her stubborn tear ducts. She heaves her body up and down as if pumping a gas canister, but no moistness appears.

“No, upon my soul, I can’t. The tears won’t come. I’ll have to have some more cognac.”

She drinks. And then laughs at her own absurdity—and it’s this laughter in the end that brings the relief she craves.

This scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander taps into an old idea about crying. That, in the words of Ovid, “it is some relief to weep: grief is satisfied and carried off by tears.”

When we speak of a feeling of relief, we’re often describing one of two different experiences. One is the relief of a pure bodily sensation, discharging a tension that has uncomfortably built up. Sneezing, belching, defecation and orgasm are all examples. The other, the relief felt at near misses and narrow escapes, that comes with another sort of whistling discharge: “Phew!” Examples of this are finding your keys after thinking you’ve locked yourself out, or an all clear from the doctor after a worried week. This second type of relief is part of a group of feelings psychologists call “prospect-based emotions” (DISAPPOINTMENT and SATISFACTION are others). They depend on our ability to imaginatively launch ourselves forward and backward through time to compare alternative realities. Studies of relief argue that the two forms of relief (bodily relief and near-miss relief) share the same basic structure: a pleasure felt when an actual or anticipated pain subsides (see also: EUPHORIA).

Weeping plays its role in both. Many of us will cry on receiving good news after a long and anxious wait, making tears part of the relief felt with a near-miss. But if crying leaves you not only sore eyed, but also quieter inside and oddly lighter, then you might also think that weeping itself has refreshed you—and that therefore, like a belch or an orgasm, tears are a sort of physical discharge of tension in their own right. That tears bring relief is an old idea, stretching back to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis (see: MORBID CURIOSITY). “What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul,” states one Jewish proverb. A much proffered modern version of this idea holds that when liquid flows from our tear ducts it flushes hormones or toxins away, leaving us feeling relaxed or released. But since when we weep we discharge little more than a milliliter of fluid, this actually seems unlikely. As neuroscientist Robert Provine put it, “If tears reduce stress, drooling and urination may be cathartic Niagaras.” There must be something more complex at work than simple hydraulics.

In fact, relief rarely comes as a pure feeling of relaxation or reassurance. The moments following a close call on the highway are a heart-thumping adrenaline rush. At the end of a long project, the relief of having finished may be spiked with disappointment. As an emotion, it flickers and is diffuse, appearing in all sorts of guises. Perhaps it’s in this more complex experience of relief that its true meaning lies. Think of the feeling of unburdening yourself by telling a secret or confessing to guilt. Or the way that a friend’s agreement to help us prepare for an interview or accompany us to the doctor’s can lessen the weight of worry. Such experiences might make us feel lighter. But this may be less because we have simply vented or expressed our anxieties (better out than in!) than because we experience the solace of being listened to and understood. In this sense, relief might be less about something being flushed away than about our feelings finally being seen.

For more on weeping, see: EMPATHY.

See also: GRIEF.