So here’s the thing… I get emotional on flights. It starts with my initial excitement about the journey ahead — closely followed by the growing feeling of exhaustion from spending so much time in a place that smells of jet fuel and strangers — and sometime after that, by full-on introspection. 

When I travel alone, I zone out of the airplane milieu just as soon as I’m settled in my seat, and the other passengers, a blur in my periphery, are still filing into theirs. As I wait for the plane to take off, I fall into my imagination. Except for a quick break for the pre-flight safety demonstration — which I like to think I know by heart having traveled often enough — I’ll remain in this highly sentimental state of mind for the rest of the trip. The ease with which I slip into this state is one of the reasons I love flying and traveling so much. It allows me to be honest and vulnerable—two major strengths for travelers who are willing to learn as much as they can from this great big world. But it almost inevitably ends in tears. Good tears, mind you — just a lot of them.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to me. There are plenty of people who cry on planes, or who are a part of what is aptly termed the Mile Cry Club. People of all genders and all nationalities who find themselves sniffling as they order another soft drink, and soar between the earth and the stars in their winged metal bucket. So, where do the tears come from? Let’s talk science (and a teensy bit of philosophy).

The Love Hormone

Throw it back to high school biology you may recall a little hormone called oxytocin. For those that skipped class, oxytocin can make us feel optimistic, loving, and at peace, and helps to mitigate the stress hormone, cortisol. It also has other lovely names such as the “love hormone” the “bliss hormone”, or more poetically, the hormone of “forgetting oneself”. You can in part blame oxytocin for the tears, whether your film du jour is Sophie’s Choice or Elf. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re sitting in front of our screens at home or we’re crammed into seat 17A, drinking our ginger ale and watching an emotional scene play out on the small screen before us—we are producing more oxytocin. Our capacity for empathy is revved up, and so too is our aptitude for mile-high lamentations. Check out this great article for an in-depth look at the science behind crying at films.
Is there a difference when it comes to who cries more? On average, women tend to produce more oxytocin than men, but this doesn’t seem to matter in the air. Research conducted by Gatwick airport (see this Times article) reveals that men believe that they are nearly three times more likely to cry while “watching a film on a plane” rather than “at home or in a cinema” than women. So what is it about being on a plane?

Some studies like this one reveal that a lack of oxygen affects our emotions. At high altitudes, humans purportedly experience “euphoria, followed by depression”. Euphoria — in other words, the same feeling we get thanks to that wonderful hormone, oxytocin. So in addition to the bliss of watching a film, we also experience the bliss of being at extreme altitudes. Oh, yes — there’s also the fact that higher levels of oxytocin can make us tired. Coupled with the mental exhaustion that comes from plane travel, or the physical exhaustion of having to wake up to catch a redeye, this can make our propensity for tears that much more intense. When you consider all of these reasons together, it’s really no wonder we have such a difficult time reigning in our emotions. 

Okay. So there’s clearly a combination of reasons why we get the blues while we’re flying so high, and they all seem to come back to oxytocin. But in the interest of being fair to our favorite hormone, we ought to consider that there’s more going on than meets the eye. 

Pure Existentialist Ennui

So there you are in 17A, seat leaned back and eyes on your screen, with your carry-on safely packed away above you. How long have you been on this flight? Where are you flying over now? You can’t be sure. You’ve forgotten the fact that you’re about 39k feet over the Earth with a group of complete strangers. Totally engrossed in your film of choice — you were in the mood for a classic today, so it’s John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club — you lose yourself in that world inside your head. You know, the one where you ask yourself all of those big existential questions. Suddenly, everything seems more real. You are living right here, right now, squarely in the present moment. It’s all too much. One moment, you’re watching Brian Johnson stick a pen up his nose, and the next, you’re bawling like a baby.

The fact is that air travel is a paradox. Humans aren’t born to fly — at least, not in the physical sense. So already you’re doing something that is, for our species, unnatural. That’s mind-blowing, to say the least. And even if flying is your raison d’être, you’re bound to feel some innate apprehensiveness about your personal safety so high above the ground. It comes with the territory of being a species with a very strong survival instinct. Friendly reminder here that our fight-or-flight response, pun definitely intended, makes us stressed, and oxytocin is needed to mitigate levels of stress in our bodies. Cue the tears.

Putting aside the act of flying itself, there’s another even more pressing aspect to this paradox. This form of travel puts you in a very intimate setting with a group of complete strangers. You are alone in a crowd, which can feel very lonely. Crying, in this case, may indicate a need for attachment. Professors in the Department of Psychology Ad Vingerhoets, Guus L. Van Heck and Marleen C. Becht of Tilburg University and Randolph Cornelius of Vassar College in New York, address that ideas that tears "help to strengthen the mutual bond between people”, and “help to turn seemingly uncontrollable situations into controllable ones” (see the full article here). You and your fellow passengers are not in control, but you’re not in control together, which is infinitely better. You and all these strangers are on this journey together, for better or for worse.

Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it? Oh, those flying machine blues…

Crying is a healthy and necessary way of expressing how you feel. Especially when you’re high above most of the rest of the world, hurtling at high speeds toward new, unexplored frontiers. So on your next flight, while you’re bawling your eyes out over some romantic comedy, be sure to remember that you’re not alone—the Mile Cry Club has more members than you think. Myself included. And if you happen to get caught sobbing uncontrollably to some happy-go-lucky scene that definitely shouldn’t warrant tears, you don’t have to feel embarrassed. Science has got your back. Besides, they’re good tears. I promise.

In case you were interested in what people are crying over most, the Guardian has named its list of top ten tearjerkers on flights, including less obvious weepies like Toy Story 3 to very obvious weepies like The Notebook.

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