There’s something cathartic about having a good cry and “letting it all out,” even if you don’t have anything in particular that’s bringing you down.
Or maybe not. Data published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that shedding tears had no effect on mood for nearly two-thirds of a group of women who kept daily emotion journals.
“Crying is not nearly as beneficial as people think it is,” Jonathan Rottenberg, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, told MSNBC’s blog the Body Odd. “Only a minority of crying episodes were associated with mood improvement — against conventional wisdom.”
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As part of the study, 97 Dutch women between the ages of 18 and 48 logged a total of 1,004 crying episodes in daily mood journals they kept over a three-month period. For 61% of the women, crying didn’t improve their mood at all, although the tears didn’t make them feel worse. Only 9% of respondents reported feeling more sad after a crying jag, while 30% reported feeling better.
Rottenberg suspects that crying isn’t the physically cleansing act that many have assumed it is and suggests that those who felt better after a waterworks session may not have benefited from the actual tears so much as the social support and showings of affection they elicited.
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The study also offered a peek into the private act of crying — when, how long and why the women experienced their outbursts. The participants reported crying sessions lasting an average of eight minutes, either alone or in the presence of one other person. The majority of crying occurred in the living room, and the women said the main reasons for their tears were conflict, loss and empathy over another’s suffering.
Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.