Why We Cry on Planes
Alone among strangers with little to do, a moment of calm amid the stress of travel
Alone in a closed metal tube, 40,000 feet above land and miles from anyone you know. Surrounded by people who share your fate, but who do not acknowledge you. They, like you, sit facing forward in rows, focusing on their own discrete box of space. The cabin is dim and it hums; you look down at your folded hands in your lap, lit by a pool of light from above. There’s nothing to do: no email to check, no messages to send out, and minimal distraction. If you felt a gaping hollow open up inside, if you thought you were not going to make it, you would have no way to reach out to your loved ones.
Is it such a stretch to imagine a commercial plane as one of the loneliest places in the modern world? Why is seat 27F on the 6:35 from JFK to LAX the perfect place and time for a good cry?
Recently, I sat with a few friends around a table in an apartment in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was after dinner, and we were drinking rum I had brought back from a recent trip to Nicaragua. The conversation moved from travel to flying and then turned to tears.
“I cried during Miss Congeniality,” my friend Connie said. “I remember the whole time thinking ‘this is so embarrassing that people can see that I’m watching Miss Congeniality and crying.’ But, there’s something about being on an airplane that makes me feel like it’s okay.”
Immediately, everyone chimed in with their own versions of Connie’s experience. We all had some story of choking up while flipping through satellite TV, catching glimpses of sitcoms and insurance advertisements and breaking down.
There’s no scientific research on the phenomenon, though, and there isn’t even much coverage in the popular media. However, it’s become quite clear that this experience isn’t limited to my small social group. In researching the subject, I’ve heard from mothers, young couples, sturdy middle-aged men, grandmothers, irony-obsessed millennials, and more; a 2011 segment on This American Life showcased writer Brett Martin’s tearful breakdown on a plane during the end of the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Sweet Home Alabama.
In 2011, the airline Virgin Atlantic ran a survey asking customers to describe their on-flight emotional experiences. Overall, 55 percent of travelers said they had “experienced heightened emotions while flying,” and a striking 41 percent of men stated that they had “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers.”
There are many theories about why humans cry ranging from the biophysical to the evolutionary. One of the most compelling hypotheses is Jeffrey Kottler’s, discussed at length in his 1996 book The Language of Tears. Kottler believes that humans cry because, unlike every other animal, we take years and years to be able to fend for ourselves. Until that time, we need a behavior that can elicit the sympathetic consideration of our needs from those around us who are more capable (read: adults). We can’t just yell for help though—that would alert predators to helpless prey—so instead, we’ve developed a silent scream: we tear up.
“It’s the biological equipment used by infants to maintain proximity to their caregivers,” explains Ad Vingerhoets, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and one of the world’s leading experts in crying. Vingerhoets agrees with Kottler: the basis of crying is in forming and maintaining attachments.
But with adults, the issue becomes a bit more knotty. In a study published in 2000, Vingerhoets and a team of researchers found that adults, unlike children, rarely cry in public. They wait until they’re in the privacy of their homes—when they are alone or, at most, in the company of one other adult. On the face of it, the “crying-as-communication” hypothesis does not fully hold up, and it certainly doesn’t explain why we cry when we’re alone, or in an airplane surrounded by strangers we have no connection to.
As adults, we cry for complex and diverse reasons: we cry in grief, or in reverence of the self-sacrifice of another, or in awe of the beautiful and sublime, or alone in our bedrooms, screaming internally at our own inadequacies. All these multifaceted experiences do, however, share a common underpinning.
In the same 2000 study, Vingerhoet’s team also discovered that, in adults, crying is most likely to follow a few specific antecedents. When asked to choose from a wide range of reasons for recent spells of crying, participants in the study chose “separation” or “rejection” far more often than other options, which included things like “pain and injury” and “criticism.” Also of note is that, of those who answered “rejection,” the most common subcategory selected was “loneliness.”
In both adults and in children, “the prototypical situations that induce crying are always related to loss or separation, and/or powerlessness,” Vingerhoets says—our experiences of these things just change with age. While, as adults, crying no longer functions as a means of keeping our caregivers close, it still retains a vestigial element of attachment—we keep crying past the point of its practical usefulness because of a deep, lingering lack.
Even when adults cry out of happiness—at, say, a reunion or the birth of a healthy baby—it’s still connected to this same idea of attachment. We cry happily when we recognize, deep down, that every connection we make in life could end up severed.
The similarity between “happy” tears and “sad” tears also exists in the biochemical and physiological processes that underpin all types of emotion-based crying.
Years ago, the chemist and tear expert Dr. William Frey published a number of highly cited studies showing that when we go through any emotion-based crying (happy and sad), our tears contain stress hormones and other chemical toxins. Frey took this as proof that crying is about the removal of stress hormones from our bodies in order to maintain emotional homeostasis. The actual health benefits of this process have been debated—Vingerhoets suggests that instead of asking, “does crying bring relief?” we should be asking, “for whom and in what conditions does crying bring relief?”
Either way, it’s useful to consider tears as the “outward signs of abrupt shifts in neurophysiology,” write researchers Jay Efran and Mitchell Greene. More specifically, crying, whether happy or sad, is the external result of an internal body shift, when the sympathetic nervous system — the “fight or flight” mechanism— gives up control of the body to the parasympathetic nervous system —a.k.a. “rest-and-digest.”
Think about the last few times you’ve cried. Regardless of what it was that ultimately caused you to tear up, most likely, you didn’t cry during the height of the experience.
For example, say you’re having a terrible day at work—just the most awful eight hours you could imagine. No matter how stressful it gets, it’s unlikely that you’ll cry, because your body won’t let you. In moments of intense stimulation, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. And during this time, your body has no use for crying; it is stressed and aroused, focused and functional. It says “deal with it,” so you do; you go pick up the lunch that was never delivered, you re-write the report that you lost when your computer shut down, and you walk the extra 15 blocks when your train stopped running.
But eventually, the stressors end. When you finally get home, and you kick off your shoes, and sit alone on your couch, in that calm quiet moment, that’s when your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. It’s at the moment of that switch that we cry: the transition between a sensory overload and a moment of calm.
While there have not been any peer-reviewed studies of crying on airplanes up to this point, there was study published in 2004 that considered grieving while driving, and in it, researchers found that grievers often “hold off grieving until they are alone and behind the wheel. They are free then from the distractions…this time by themselves provides them with the freedom for emotional processing and relief.”
The same thing occurs when you finally sit down in your seat on an airplane: your body shifts gears. You’ve finally reached the end of what was likely a full day of getting to the airport, and could have been weeks of preparing, or even years of an important life phase culminating in an end and new beginning. And that’s the time to have a good, long cry.
Speaking of cars: Recently the writer, director, and comedian Louis C.K. made the social media rounds in a video clip discussing crying on Conan O’Brien’s talk show. C.K. begins by explaining how hard it is to simply sit with yourself these days, when access to cell phones and our extended social networks have conditioned us to imagine ourselves as always connected. His argument is that if you take those things away, we fall to pieces very quickly—he talks about breaking down into tears whenever he’s on long drives in a car. He couches it in humor, but he’s being dead serious.
“You need to build an ability to just be by yourself and not be doing something —that's what the phones are taking away, and that's being a person, right?” C.K. asks.
When you’re alone, in a situation where you can’t can’t fiddle with your smartphone or turn your anxieties outward toward your social network, the apprehensions and fears of loneliness quickly overtake you. Then you have no choice but to face the fact: you’re a person, in the universe, and you are in some way big or small, alone here. You might cry.
“Crying seems to occur in situations where action makes no sense,” Vingerhoets says. “Where [action] is not needed or where you can’t act because you feel hopeless or are helpless.” Grief is the paramount example: after a death, there’s no explanation and there’s nothing a person can do except work through their feelings. “When there’s no reason to fight or fly, you just have to deal with your emotions,” Vingerhoets says.
This is what it’s like on a plane—it’s that rare situation where you are alone for a long period of time and there is nothing you can do. You are far from the world and you’ve given up control: your life is literally in the hands of the pilot and crew.
Even if you got a ticket on a newer plane with 70 channels of movies and satellite TV, the distractions will never be enough to keep you from these heightened feelings—in fact, they might just turn out to be the very triggers that elicit your tears. After running their survey, Virgin decided to add pre-roll to certain particularly sad movies (like Toy Story 3) that warned “the following film contains scenes which may cause viewers of a sensitive disposition to cry, weep, sob, wail, howl, bawl, bleat or mewl.” But they might be understating the issue; after all, Miss Congeniality, in the right situation, can make a grown woman cry.
Obviously, plane rides are often sad because of circumstance. There’s a good chance that once you’ve gotten on a plane you’ve left…something. Maybe you just ended the best vacation you’ve ever had and wish that it never ended. Perhaps you are moving out of the first house you ever bought. Or maybe you just left an old childhood friend that you saw for the first time in years. Or, maybe you just left the love of your life, because you had to move across the country for a job.
All of these things can create a deep sense of separation, a feeling that only becomes more charged in commercial airspace. Because after spending the past few hours, days, or months in the highly charged state of leaving, when you board that plane, that heightened state will finally come to an end. And in that in-between moment, when you find yourself all alone in the low drone of the plane, what will you do?