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Why nervous laughter and happy tears are good for you
Counterintuitive emotional responses help the body remain in balance, a new study shows. - photo by

Riders on life's emotional roller coaster, rejoice. There's a scientific explanation for confusing shifts between emotional extremes.

A forthcoming study in Psychological Science reports that opposing emotional reactions to a single event, like crying at a wedding or wanting to pinch the cheeks of an adorable baby, help keep the body in balance. These dimorphous expressions may be counterintuitive, but they're an essential part of processing certain events.

"People may be restoring emotional equilibrium with these expressions," said lead researcher Oriana Aragon of Yale University in a press release. "They seem to take place when people are overwhelmed with strong positive emotions."

According to The Atlantic, Aragon was inspired to pursue the research project after listening to a guest on Conan O'Brien's late night talk show describe her strange and aggressive responses to seeing something cute. The video clip shows fashion model and actress Leslie Bibb talking about thinking, "Oh, that's baby's so cute, I just want to punch it in the face," and "That dog is so cute, I'm gonna kick it in the head."

Describing the interview to her dad helped Aragon realize that Bibb's experience is actually universal, and part of the same phenomenon that causes nervous laughter or joyful tears. It's all about emotional regulation, The Atlantic reported.

Aragon and her fellow researchers from Yale University used online survey responses to track participants' reactions to stimuli like cute babies or cinematic happy endings, The Washington Postreported, discovering that behavior like crying at a wedding isn't specific to the event. Instead, it's an expression of the body's general desire to remain emotionally balanced.

"We really want emotional homeostasis," Aragon told The Post. "We want a happy middle spot. Extreme is not good. It's hard on our bodies."

In other words, the body has emotional limits: "If our sadness or joy is reaching an unmanageable limit, our bodies therefore become physiologically overwhelmed," Medical Daily reported.

Although the new study predominately focuses on reactions to positive stimuli, Medical Daily noted that other research has explored responses to negative or uncomfortable events.

In one experiment, participants were forced to listen to people screaming out in pain in a nearby room. The researcher was shocked to witness some subjects begin to laugh, Medical Daily reported.

Research on emotional intelligence might seem silly, especially when it involves getting violent in response to seeing a cute puppy, but Aragon told Psychological Science that studies like hers are an important part of understanding human functioning.

"These insights advance our understanding of how people express and control their emotions, which is importantly related to mental and physical health, the quality of relationships with others, and even how well people work together," she said.

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas