Ever wondered why people sometimes cry when they're happy? At weddings? When a child does something that makes a parent especially proud? When watching a movie? Why, for instance, did my eyes well up when I first saw Red find the money Andy had stashed for him in the rock wall in "Shawshank Redemption?"
My theory is that we recognize at some level that happiness is fleeting in a life where the only things we can truly count on are the losses brought about by death.* Life is suffering, as the Buddhists say, and therefore inherently sorrowful. So we're moved by these moments of joy or good fortune, these small triumphs of the human spirit, knowing subconsciously that they'll be washed away by time and fate.
I searched to see if anyone's written about this phenomenon and eventually came across this quote by Albert Camus: "Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time."
It's not exactly the same sentiment, but pretty close. Not sure about the translation, though: Does not "eternity" by definition "stretch out over the whole of time"?
Now, it wouldn't surprise me if one day neuroscientists or behavioralists come up with a much less poetic explanation, but until then I'll stick with my hypothesis.
As for Camus, I haven't read his works, aside from five pages of "The Stranger," but my man is a quotation machine. Here, courtesy of the absolutely 100-percent-reliable Brainy Quote, are a few of his other greatest hits:
-- But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?
-- Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question.
-- Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic.
-- Martyrs have to choose between being forgotten, mocked or used. As for being understood -- never.
-- Men are convinced of your arguments, your sincerity, and the seriousness of your efforts only by your death.
-- The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.**
-- To be famous, in fact, one has only to kill one's landlady.***
-- We always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love -- first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage.
-- We rarely confide in those who are better than we are.
-- You are forgiven for your happiness and successes only if you share them.
*A somewhat similar phenomenon is how one often feels most alive when confronting death, e.g. mountain-climbing. But this is more easily explained by biochemistry (adrenaline) than crying when happy is.
**Must. Resist. Political. Commentary.
***Prescient remark considering where our society has wound up, though merely killing one's landlady these days is not enough. Incidentally, it's too bad Camus didn't live to witness Speidi. I'd pay good money to sit and watch a Heidi and Spencer special on VH1 with him.