This imperative to avoid being – even appearing – unhappy has led to a culture that rewards a performative happiness, in which people curate public-facing lives, via Instagram and its kin, composed of a string of ‘peak experiences’ – and nothing else. Sadness and disappointment are rejected, even neutral or mundane life experiences get airbrushed out of the frame. It’s as though appearing unhappy implies some kind of Protestant moral fault: as if you didn’t work hard enough or believe sufficiently in yourself.
A tear is a universal sign. Since ancient times, philosophers and scientists have tried to explain weeping as part of a shared human language of emotional expression. But, in fact, a tear on its own means nothing. As they well up in our eyes, or dribble down our cheeks, the meanings of those salty droplets can only be tentatively inferred by others, and then only when they know much more about the particular mental, social, and narrative contexts that gave rise to them.