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How to Trick Your Mind Into Enjoying Long Flights, According to a Travel Psychologist

June 02, 2018
9 min read
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Long-haul flights may only seem tolerable for travelers flying in luxurious lie-flat seats. But even in economy, I've discovered a number of ways to coach my brain into finding the lengthy trip manageable — sometimes, even outright pleasurable.

Sure, you won’t entirely forget the feeling of being squished and cramped, but what’s great about these tips is that they are meaningful tools you can use to adapt to the unnatural setting of hurtling through the sky at 35,000 feet for long periods of time.

This approach owes a lot to cognitive-behavioral practice. As a clinical psychologist, it’s what I do every single day, at work, at home and, yes, on airplanes. Simply put, these methods will help you coax your brain into a new way of thinking by adding layers of logic and context to your emotions and reframing things. Ultimately, you'll create your own world. And if you are in total control of your own world, your environment will feel under your control. (Even if you're totally at the whim of the flight crew and jet streams.)

You don't have to be a professional psychologist to apply these cognitive techniques. And best of all, these strategies aren't entirely exclusive to international flights. They can also be helpful on the subway, during tedious layovers and especially long days in the office.

By accepting your situation (rather than bemoaning the upgrade you didn't get or wishing you were at sea level), you can make peace with a long trip. And maybe you, too, will come to enjoy long flights as much as I do.

Learn to appreciate the privilege of flight

“Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot” is a terrific read by the commercial pilot Mark Vanhoenacker. After all, who better than a pilot to show you the joys of flying? Vanhoenacker is a poetic, smart and first-rate observer, and he delivers powerful insights about learning to appreciate the journey.

"Many pilots, I think, are especially drawn to the freedom of flight," Vanhoenacker writes. "A jet is detached, physically remote and separate for a certain number of miles and hours .... Paired with this freedom is the opportunity to come to know the cities of the world well and to see so much of the land, water and air that lie between them."

Reading Vanhoenacker made it possible for me to enjoy my time in the air, high above the ground, and to see it as a privilege afforded to most human beings only about two generations back. We should stop griping and appreciate how incredibly lucky we are.

This also helped me put aside my fears and boredom and see the bliss of flying from an expert who chooses to do it countless times, year after year. Whatever he loves about it, I could love, too.

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Take advantage of the lack of distractions

Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist Sherri Turkle has written extensively about the dangers of our growing reliance upon technology. In her books “Reclaiming Conversation” and “Alone Together,” she describes the importance of renewing insight rather than disappearing into the Internet. Now’s your chance.

Even if your flight is equipped with free Wi-Fi, consider staying unplugged. Without the ceaseless distractions of email, social media alerts, text messages and phone calls, you'll find time to really unwind.

You know how you’ve always wanted to meditate more often? With long, uninterrupted blocks of time, you have no excuses and few distractions. Numerous books have been written about how much meditation can improve stress levels, combat depression and promote general well-being. Before you get on the plane, buy a book or download a guided meditation program. Breathe deeply.

In your little cocoon, having created a cozy and blissfully distraction-free environment, you should also try to take a nap. This is where being unplugged helps. Studies have demonstrated that technology can seriously disrupt our natural patterns of sleep and that, as we know, not getting enough sleep can contribute to depression and anxiety.

“One of the most simple but important reasons technology affects our sleep is cognitive stimulation," Mark Rosekind, former director of the Fatigue Countermeasures Program at NASA's Ames Research Center told WebMD the Magazine in 2008.

The Internet can easily trigger cognitive stimulation. While it’s loads of fun to watch cat videos, your brain can get stuck in that accelerated mode. And that makes it hard to sleep, concentrate on a book, listen to a person talking to you or even hear your own thoughts. Meditation and naps can both reestablish focus, and there is no better time to do both than on a flight when the Internet is out of reach. These activities slow things down and create a relaxed state of mind.

It definitely helps to have a solid pair of noise-canceling headphones in your carry-on. Blocking out that screaming kid in the row behind and the guy seated next to you who wants to tell you his life story is, of course, essential to well-being.

OK, so you may not realistically be able to meditate or sleep for 14 hours on the flight to Tokyo. So now what?

Pack a favorite meal

Hearing the words “Pasta or chicken?” spoken by a well-meaning flight attendant makes me sad. Really sad. But just as quickly, the aroma of my favorite foods can bring me outright delight. And from a psychological standpoint, it makes sense. Studies show that the foods we enjoy (we each have our own version of comfort food) can elevate our mood.

So when I fly from Tokyo, I take along the airplane equivalent of Japanese ekiben, or train picnics: I pack yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) that you can buy in the spectacular food halls of fancy department stores. From Switzerland, I bring along delicious baked goods. And whenever I fly out of New York City, I bring along bagels and lox from Russ & Daughters. For about $20 per person, you’re dining in your version of business class. And you're probably doing your physical self some good, too. Comfort food, after all, does not need to be high in fat.

“People have this belief that high-calorie foods are the path out of difficult feelings,” Kelly D. Brownell, dean of the Stanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, told "The New York Times" in 2014. “But the assignment of the word ‘comfort’ to these foods implies there is a relationship between ‘comfort’ and ‘food’ that may not exist.”

In fact, psychologists have found that it's actually the memory of pleasurable activities associated with the food that provides the comfort. Lift your spirits and find comfort even on the most uncomfortable flight by bringing a meal (or two) that will help you recall happier times, either from home or your travels abroad.

Make time for movement

Being airborne for many hours makes me sleepy and relaxed, but it’s essential to exercise both for physical as well as mental health. Keep the blood flowing. Stretch your arms and legs and take a little walk around the cabin. Your mood will instantly improve (as will your circulation). Many psychologists have written about the link between staying active and fostering feelings of well-being.

"There's good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people," James Blumenthal, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, told "Monitor on Psychology" in 2011.

Yes, it's a lifestyle issue, and walking around the cabin once won't suddenly change your outlook on life. But — and it's a very important but — it can be downright dangerous to sit in your seat for long hours without getting up. And that necessary physical activity will boost your attitude and decrease your likelihood of developing a condition such as deep vein thrombosis.

And stay entertained with films and books

Rather than hoping the in-flight entertainment options have been refreshed (I swear, if I see “The Lego Movie,” or “Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice,” one more time, I’ll take a slow boat to China rather than fly) I always download feel-good films before departure.

Seriously: Opt for a comedy. I love watching old classics, such as “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip,” and newer films, like “Minions.” You might also get a copy of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie “Flying Down to Rio,” in which Fred and Ginger dance, miraculously, on the wings of a plane. Because it turns out the corny old saying “Laughter is the best medicine” is actually scientific fact.

“Humor relaxes, reframes and heals,” Marcus Clarke, a British psychologist, wrote for the blog Psychology of Humor.

Even if action flicks or dramas seem more appealing, why cry or cringe when you can laugh? Some people cry more on planes, and one theory has it that because there are fewer distractions, emotions are laid bare — you suddenly have the time to experience the fear and sadness you block out during a busy, stimulating day.

That being the case, use your cognition to reframe the time: Watching a funny movie will give you access to joy and laughter that you also do not experience quite so intensely during your normal day for the same reasons you don't feel as much fear or sadness.

You can also create a sense of excitement and anticipation in your mind by reading novels about the place you're traveling. The Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, for example, or the short stories by Collette, staged in France. Read Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" en route to Vietnam, or anything by P.G. Wodehouse for travelers flying to England. Stories by Hideo Yokoyama are ideal reading material for trips to Japan.

By transporting your mind to the destination, you won't feel as though you're waiting half a day to start your vacation. Instead, your trip will start as soon as you fasten your seatbelt.

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