On a recent flight between New York and San Diego, I was going about my business and catching up on old New Yorker articles. I began reading an essay, “When Things Go Missing: Reflections on Two Seasons of Loss”, by Kathryn Schulz, and soon found myself in a puddle of tears. I finished a packet of travel size Kleenex in 10 minutes. The tears kept coming. Yes, it was a deeply moving essay, beautifully written and touchingly personal but why was I so emotional?
Because tearing up on airplanes is pretty common. I asked a few friends and each one had a story. One friend said she sobbed last month during the sad part of the most cheerful animated film, The Secret Lives of Pets. Another mentioned he became “a little weepy” while listening to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”—a song he has heard a thousand times but for some reason, the words hit him hard at 30,000 feet. Pretending he was mid-allergy attack, he asked the flight attendant for an extra napkin.
A Google search reveals such a thing as the “Mile Cry Club”, which has been known to the airline industry for years. According to a Vice article,
“A few years ago, Virgin Atlantic sought to explore this phenomenon as it tested new entertainment options for its flights. Curious if it should broadcast ‘weep warnings’ before particularly sad in-flight movies, the airline commissioned a 3,000-person survey and a Facebook poll to understand if passengers do indeed cry when they fly. The results were telling: 55 percent of respondents reported intensified emotions during flights, and 41 percent of men admitted to hiding their tears from other passengers.”
A number of theories attempt to explain this curious phenomenon. Some believe it may be caused by a heightened sense of loneliness that creeps up on us when forced to sit still for a period of time with limited distraction — in-flight movies and cross-row trivia games can only entertain us and prevent our minds from wandering so far.
When you’re trapped in your seat at 35,000 feet, as opposed to multitasking in an office on terra ferma, you’re more likely to start pondering existential questions like “Who am I? What is it all about? Am I a good person? Am I leading a meaningful life? Would anyone care if I didn’t exist?” When we are “in between”—not at home, not yet arrived—we are forced to shift gears and contemplate the bigger picture.
It is worth noting that the tears don’t necessarily indicate sadness. As adults, we don’t typically cry when we are physically hurt the way children do—we cry out of sadness but also when we are moved by something that is meaningful. When we bear witness to a breathtaking sunset, listen to a beautiful song, or learn about an extraordinary act of kindness, it is at once humbling and elevating. We are filled with a sense of wonder. Our eyes well up with tears. We get goosebumps. The “little things” fade to the background and what’s important takes center stage. It is possible that being on an airplane, above the clouds, awakens a sense of awe and makes us want to be a better person.
Of course, a less romantic explanation is oxygen deprivation. Most airline cabins are pressurized to 8,000 feet above sea level, an altitude that can lower the amount of oxygen in the blood by about 4%. Research suggests that, in addition to the physical effects of altitude sickness, changes in oxygen levels also impact mood and fatigue and can leave us feeling more emotional. (That said, people often tell me they become tearful while driving or on a train so altitude may have nothing to do with it.)
Personally, I think my waterworks have more to do with being in transit and feeling detached from loved ones and the daily earthly distractions. Whatever the reason, there is something cathartic about a good cry — while soaring above the clouds or driving in your car. Just bring a jumbo box of tissues.