Tears in heaven: Why do we cry on aeroplanes?

I've cried on planes for so long, I've started packing a special "crying kit" for use in-flight.

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For years, I assumed that my tendency to cry on planes was just a quirk. I often seek out tear-jerkers for in-flight entertainment: films about lovers torn apart by illness, heroic animals meeting terrible ends, war. At other times, I try to avoid anything emotionally arousing and I work, or flick through a magazine. But it’s no use. I cry anyway.

I’ve started packing an on-board crying kit – tissues and make-up remover wipes – because, trust me, there are few things more depressing than soaking up streaming mascara with a sick bag because you are too embarrassed to wake up the person in the aisle seat.

I recently confessed to a friend about my mile-high crying habit. “Oh, my God!” she said, and for a split second I felt awkward and exposed. “Me, too.” I began to ask other friends if they cried on planes. A significant number seemed puzzled by the question but others responded with recognition. One described how, on a flight to Mumbai, he had become so emotional that two attendants approached him to check that he was OK. He was watching Bridesmaids, a comedy film in which the most memorable scene is a woman defecating in her wedding dress. When I emailed my NS editors about this story, one replied that he had cried in the air while watching The Simpsons; another admitted that she had sobbed through Pitch Perfect 2.

There are simple explanations for this – a painful goodbye at the airport, homesickness, upheaval, bereavement – but chronic mile-high blubbers don’t cry only on such occasions. Nor are they necessarily nervous flyers.

There is no scientific research into crying on planes, which is not surprising. There is limited consensus about why adults weep at all. But according to Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist and leading expert on crying, adults weep for many of the same reasons as babies do: our feelings of powerlessness, loss or separation. His work has also found that people are most likely to cry on their own or with one other person, and that our propensity for tears rises through the afternoon and evening. Crying is rarely an immediate response. People cry when they are reflecting on their feelings in private.

Planes, it seems, offer prime weeping conditions. You’re suspended in mid-air, with little to distract you from your sense of vulnerability. When the cabin lights are dimmed and your earphones are in, you might forget that you are in a cabin full of strangers. Then, on-screen, Simba’s father dies and you can feel exactly what it’s like to be that cartoon lion cub, exiled and friendless.

One academic paper explores the way in which the design of in-flight entertainment systems amplifies our emotional response. “The technology creates a relationship of extreme proximity between the passenger and the media form: the screen is but a few feet away from the viewer and the headphones put speakers virtually inside your body,” writes Stephen Groening, a professor at the University of Washington. He suggests that airlines may be wise to this, which is why they play so many romcoms.

Or perhaps we weep because air travel makes us feel like small children. That is the conclusion reached by Brett Martin, a writer who says he is dry-eyed to a fault on land but “always” cries while watching films on planes. Air travel “puts you into a kind of sterile, infantilising travel purgatory. You’re strapped in, given a blanket, a little sippy cup and tiny silverware, forced to do whatever you’re told,” he said on the radio show This American Life.

Martin’s idea was echoed by a flight attendant I spoke to, who described her job as being “like a kindergarten teacher”. (She requested that I didn’t use her name.) She thought my focus might be too narrow: at high altitudes, all kinds of emotions are heightened. Altercations happen on every flight. Couples have had screaming rows; men have beaten their wives; fistfights have broken out over reclined seats or “a funny look”. Even cabin crew can be afflicted by unexplained bouts of anger or sadness.

She offered me a few explanations: people are often tired or jet-lagged. They do not feel in control. The oxygen levels and cabin pressure are lower than on the ground and the body reacts in some unpredictable ways (and in some predictable ones): you get drunk faster, food tastes different, your organs expand.

That’s what it feels like to be an on-board crier – as though, after take-off, your heart grows a little, its muscles strain and stretch thin. You cry because you’re lonely. You cry because the world is full of lonely people. You cry because you’re watching Bridesmaids

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt