There have been many serious studies of adult crying and laughter. What unites all of them is that they make no attempt to distinguish types of laughter and crying. Lumping all together, they report no benefit. Those who cry easily differentiate between what they call “a good cry” and a bad one. And surely a good laugh at one’s self is worlds apart from ridiculing others by laughing at them.
The medical literature, mostly financed by drug companies, seems particularly distorted in this respect. In virtually all studies, emotions are the enemies. This orientation is understandable with respect to rage, but laughing and crying also are usually treated as pathological. There are many studies of a new pathology called emotional lability, or even a more extreme label, emotional incontinence!
It may be that the absence of emotional expression might be a far wider problem, and also a much more damaging one. I have found only one article that touches on this issue. Scoppetta (2005) showed that anti-depressants suppress crying even in normal persons, and admit a doubt about the wisdom of widespread usage:
SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] are among the most used drugs in the world, every day they are consumed by millions of people including politicians, businessmen, soldiers, army commanders, policemen and criminals. The idea is … worrying that the control of the emotions and behavior of these millions of people can be quickly modified by one SSRI for a few days …
The management of grief provides one example of over-control rather than under-control of emotions. The inability to mourn, particularly among men, seems to be a social institution in modern societies. Perhaps the widespread use of drugs that further inhibit crying and other forms of emotional expression is extremely damaging rather than helpful, not just to individuals, but to whole societies.
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Thomas Scheff is a UCSB professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology.