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The Benefits of a Good Cry? It Depends

Having a good cry, whether after just winning the French Open or losing the Australian Open, surely brings something positive — or are you just a crybaby?

Previously, I wrote about tennis great Roger Federer and the numerical challenges he faces in winning Grand Slam tournaments as he crawls toward his late 20s. This past Sunday, he answered some of my concerns by winning the French Open, the one major that has eluded him. (Of course, my concerns were front and center in his mind!)

He didn't have to face Rafael Nadal, who has beaten Federer the past four years in Paris. But that doesn't matter that much. Winning a major is serious labor, no matter who one faces along the way.

There is so much to say about the victory: Federer's grace as both an athlete and a sportsman, his place among the greatest that have played the sport, the four aces he served in the second set tiebreaker.

But what struck me the most about the match was the sight of Federer crying at the end, first right after he won, and then again as the Swiss national anthem played. This time, he was crying tears of both joy and relief. But a few months ago, he was crying different tears when he lost the Australian Open to Nadal. This clip shows not only the emotional stakes involved for Federer, but also suggests that we are witnessing, in Federer and Nadal, the best rivalry in professional sports, one which does away with clichéd notions of machismo, without sacrificing the heightened level of play that good rivalries produce.

Within a larger social context that expects a certain stiff upper-lipped masculinity out of its male athletes, Federer's tears of joy were understandable. However, public tears of defeat are less common, and therefore more surprising to witness. When an athlete does weep in defeat, the rules of public masculinity and received common sense seem to clash.

When he lost in Australia, Federer was doing something people do when they feel great emotional pain or disappointment. They cry as a form of catharsis, as a way of getting beyond the big hurt.

But just how useful are tears as means of catharsis?

That depends on the context of the tears, according to University of South Florida psychologists Jonathan Rottenberg and Lauren M. Bylsma, and their colleague Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University. In the December 2008 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, the three voiced a certain bit of skepticism.

"Given this chorus of opinion, one might naturally expect to find overwhelming evidence that crying provides tangible psychological benefits. For this, one would search in vain: The empirical record is at best spotty, with many studies finding no benefits of crying."

The aim of their research is not to show that there are no benefits, but rather that there is "heterogeneity of crying effects." This heterogeneity is best understood through four considerations: how the effects of crying are measured, conditions in the social environment, personality traits of the crier and the affective state of the crier.

The most interesting part of this study is on the conditions of social environment.

"Importantly, variation in social-environmental factors tracked the mood benefits of crying: Criers who received social support during their crying episode were more likely to report mood benefits than were criers who did not report receiving social support. Likewise, mood benefits were more likely when the precipitating events of a crying episode had been resolved than they were when events were unresolved. Finally, criers who reported experiencing negative social emotions like shame and embarrassment were less likely to report mood benefits. These findings demonstrate that crying may have diverse psychological consequences and that variation in the social context surrounding crying episodes helps to explain this heterogeneity."

Both in the case of the Australian Open and the French Open, the audience members received Federer's crying in a positive light. This may be a good sign of things to come in terms of public expectations of masculinity among its athletes. And yet somehow, it feels like Federer — the exceptional tennis player and the crier — may be an anomaly, instead of norm.

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