Why we cry on airplanes.



travel well

live well

The lights are off. It’s dark. The attendants have picked up the remains your chicken and pasta that was somehow better than you expected, but still completely sub-par. You’re snuggled into seat 34B surrounded by the light snore coming from 34A. You know you should join your seat mates and try and get some sleep. This might be your only chance. You put your head back, imagine the cobblestone streets waiting for you once the plane lands, and close your eyes.

But you’re not tired. You’re not tired at all. Maybe that 6pm coffee at the airport was ill-advised. This will never work. You don’t sleep well on planes.

You press the touch screen on the seat back in front of you. It lights up searingly bright. You scroll through the movies. Pick something that will help you sleep, you think. Sweet Home Alabama, maybe you saw that years ago. Whatever, sure— you click play. And that’s when it happens… Your usual stoic nature is cast aside and you find yourself wiping tears with your shirtsleeve watching Reese Witherspoon proclaim her love in the rain. 

Why do so many of us cry on airplanes?

I’ve heard anecdotal stories about how dehydration effects our brain function, or sometimes its the cabin pressure, the altitude. None of those, to me, explain why I was touched to the point of tears when Jess scored the winning goal in front of Jonathan Rhys Meyer while her family was dancing joyously in their saris at Pinky’s wedding in Bend it like Beckham. 

There’s a stillness and an anonymity to being awake on a plane. It allows you to sit with your feelings and simply feel them. Perhaps you’re subconsciously saying goodbye to your former self, the banal and boring one you left behind on land. Perhaps the version of yourself that will step off this plane is more adventurous, braver, and more likely to have the right words and wisdom to help a young Matt Damon quell his inner demons. Perhaps the movies remind us of something in ourselves that has been dormant for far too long.

Or maybe it’s as simple as the lack of sleep, the tremendous amount of coffee you drank, and the fact that your uber missed a turn and barely got you to the airport on time. Once we’re settled, our fight-or-flight response that had been churning all day shifts to a calmer state of rest — something has to mark that transition. What better than a good cry?

Sure, the pain au chocolat at your favorite boulangerie in Paris or a visit to your most beloved Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are reasons enough to get on a plane, but the overlooked small joys of travel are often the sweetest parts. Even if it isn’t as grand as azure water and white sand beaches, I miss the catharsis that comes from a good cry at 40,000 feet. It’s a reminder that life isn’t just another news article on our phone, that the core of us is still here, feeling away at the realness of human emotion.