Join the blub: The benefits of crying

We're always told that a good cry will make us feel better. So why not get together and let the tears flow?

Take a look at the self-help section at your local bookshop. You'll find an array of brightly coloured books with the word "happiness" on the spine: Twelve Steps to Happiness, Happiness is a Choice, The Happiness Makeover. Everyone wants to be happy. In America, it's a constitutional right - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We're constantly told of the therapeutic value of laughter, but what about crying? There's a Jewish saying: "What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul."

Is there truth in this? The last time Britain saw a mass outpouring of lachrymal secretion was at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, and that was more like mass hysteria than genuine sadness.

Today, we're more interested in chasing the happiness rainbow. We feel that if we're not relentlessly, deliriously joyful, our lives have somehow failed. In the West, laughter clubs are now all the rage. These originated in India in 1995, when a physician who had read about the positive effects of laughter gathered people to stand around and force the chuckles. Soon, London and the rest of the world caught on.

In Japan, however, crying is all the rage. The Japanese call it the "crying boom" - everyone wants a bit of sadness in their lives. Instead of going to a karaoke bar after work to wind down, businesspeople watch weepy films (called "tear films") at these crying clubs. There is also a huge demand for sad TV dramas and books, each graded by its ability to induce tears.

Unfortunately, little research has been done on the benefits of crying. There's something dubious about stimulating tears in people. What do you do; tell them their mother has died, and "can you weep into this test tube, please?" Tough to get that one past the ethical review board.

On the other hand, a lot has been written about the therapeutic value of laughter. It lowers stress-hormone levels, increases levels of some immunoglobulins (antibodies) and lowers blood pressure. Laughter gives the facial, abdominal and back muscles and diaphragm a good workout - which explains why you may ache all over after leaving a comedy club.

But laughter has a dark side. You might think that most asthma attacks are triggered by pollen, dust mites and mould, but you'd be wrong. Laughter is actually the most common trigger, according to a study conducted by Dr Stuart Garay at the New York University medical centre.

If laughter and crying are just two ends of the spectrum of human emotions, why do we elevate one and denigrate the other? The novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward." We can forgive Vonnegut his preference for laughter; he did witness the destruction of Dresden, so he's probably had his fill of misery. But couldn't the rest of us benefit from a few more tears?

By this, I mean emotional tears. There are three types of tears: continuous tears, which stop our eyes drying up; reflex tears, caused by irritants such as smoke; and emotional tears (or "psychogenic lachrymations", the medical term). The emotion needn't be sadness; people shed emotional tears out of frustration, anger, relief, sometimes even in an aesthetic experience such as the birth of a child or the unveiling of the latest Lamborghini.

We know that crying emotional tears has a social function in that it brings us closer together. We learn as babies that crying draws attention, and that the louder that we cry, the more attention we get.

"Crying is a social tool," says Dr Simon Moore, the academic leader in psychology at London Metropolitan University, "but if it was just a social tool, people wouldn't cry in private. Crying must serve some sort of physiological service."

A few years ago, William Frey II, a biochemist at the St Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, found that emotional tears have 24 per cent more protein than reflex tears. Tears aren't just salt water; they contain leucine enkephalin, an endorphin that modulates pain, and hormones such as prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone, released at times of stress. Could tears be the body's way of flushing out excess stress hormones?

Research has shown that people suffering from stress-related conditions, such as colitis and ulcers, are less likely to have a positive attitude to crying. Is crying a safety valve? Frey believes it may well be.

In an effort to shed stress hormones, I attended an evening of "misery, melancholy, sadness, absence and loss" at Britain's first crying club, called Loss. The event, in the old wine-cellars of Hedges and Butler, just off Regent's Street in London, is aptly sponsored by Hendrick's gin - gin being the queen of maudlin drinks.

The host, Viktor Wynd, says the idea for the club came from the Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum. Grass's fictional club is called the Onion Cellar. Unlike Grass's club, this one has both music and a bar. In one cellar, a Fado singer belts out a melancholic tune. The crowd look like they're just back from a Victorian funeral. It's all suitably elegiac - but no one is crying. I ask one punter, Julia, why she is dry-eyed. "I'm not going to cry," she says from behind a long black fringe. "It'll ruin my make-up." So does Julia believe in crying? "A cry is good for everyone... get it out with friends. Boys are learning to get it out too."

At midnight, Viktor produces a set of lethal-looking knives. Like the Onion Cellar in The Tin Drum, we have onions to chop. This may seem like a cheat, but laughing clubs start off with forced chuckles, crescendoing into genuine laughter. You have to kick-start events somehow.

On a table, I chop the greenest onions I can find. Soon, tears are streaming down my face. At the next table, the DJ and club promoter Wade Crescent is busy signing his divorce papers in the presence of a lawyer and an entourage who look like they've stepped off the set of The Addams Family. In the background, a Marlene Dietrich lookalike sings "Falling in Love Again". It's all too beautiful. I feel the tears run down my face... but are they irritant tears or aesthetic tears? I'm not sure.

I soak up the heaviness of the atmosphere, but I notice that very few people are shedding tears. Perhaps we've lost the ability to cry. Grass called the 20th century the "tearless century", but it looks like the 21st might be drier still.

When I mention this lack of public crying to Dr Moore, he says: "Our emotions are culturally bound. There are definitely cultural differences in the way we show emotions. In England, we are quite restricted. We tend not to show the full range of emotions in public because it's not the done thing." Perhaps public crying (except on the football pitch) will never catch on here. But if the famously reserved Japanese can do it, surely we can? Crying is not pathological; it's cathartic, healthy. So come on, cry me a river.

For details of Loss events, go to www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org

The lowdown on lachrymation

* Humans are the only creatures known to shed emotional tears, though it has been suggested that elephants and gorillas might. Other mammals produce reflex and basal tears. Salt-water crocodiles also shed tears, but only to rid themselves of excess salt water.

* It is often believed that depressed people cry a lot, but researchers at Stanford University found that depressed people are no more likely to weep at a sad movie than non-depressed people.

* Although babies cry a lot, they don't actually shed tears until they are several weeks old.

* The most mournful tune, according to the psychologist John Sloboda, is Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony.

* The presence of the hormone prolactin is thought to be the reason women cry, on average, five times as much as men. At the age of 18 women have 60 per cent more prolactin than men.

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