The Meaning of Your Life? Just Follow Your Tears of Joy
I saw a beautiful story the other day about a guy named Francis. Leaving his university dorm one morning, he found a group of friends waiting outside waving balloons. It wasn’t his birthday, so Francis was confused. Then one of the friends stepped forward, holding a box. “There’s no guarantee these will work,” he said, “but we thought you were worth getting to try them out.” The friends had all chipped in to buy a pair of corrective glasses for Francis’ colour blindness. He put them on, saw the red, yellow and blue of the balloons for the first time, and soon everyone was weeping tears of joy.
The Paradoxical Experience
Weeping for joy may be our most paradoxical human experience. Tears are normally a response to sadness or pain, not joy, and joy is normally expressed with fist pumps and happy dances, not tears. And yet in times of great kindness or triumph, they come—the watery proof of our deepest happiness.
A group of Italian psychologists recently looked into the phenomenon of tears of joy and noticed something interesting: the things that trigger them are the same things we say give life meaning—things like feeling deeply loved, achieving a major goal, or helping others. This led them to the delightful conclusion that tears of joy are pointers to the meaning of our lives. I think they’re onto something.
A Pointer to Meaning
Last year my wife was named Australian of the Year in the UK for her role in the Oxford AstraZeneca covid vaccine. The night before the fancy awards dinner at Australia House in London, she read me her acceptance speech. And as I listened to her recount the moment she and a colleague analysed the trials data to discover the vaccine worked, I burst into tears of joy. Helping to create a vaccine that saved over 6 million lives at last count was part of the meaning of Merryn’s life, and supporting her in it had been part of mine.
This is one reason why I believe in God, by the way. Jesus said we’ve been made to love God and love others, and when researchers find tears of joy happen mostly in times of both, it suggests to me there’s something to the claim.
We get engaged. A baby is born. Our sacrificial efforts pay off. Friends help us see colour for the first time. We cry tears of joy at such moments because it’s all so meaningful. And when those watching on weep too, maybe tears of joy don’t just point to the meaning of our lives, but of life itself—to love God and love others, and open our arms to the love they give back.
First broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show
This is an affirmation of what I’ve always known to be true. The love that has grown in me by being the mom of a son who is neurodiverse is the meaning of my life and has most definitely brought me tears of joy nearly every day of my life. I experience the love of God more deeply than I could’ve ever hoped for. I’m so very lucky!