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By Matt Potter (@MattPotter)     3 Jun 2016

Jet lag gets a terrible rap. But maybe we should learn to love it. Because the disruption of our body’s rhythms as we fly across time zones tells an alternate history of our age

I am descending on Singapore. Around me, prone bodies are shrouded in polyester blankets. The attendants have switched off the last remaining lights and that odd, suspended state takes over. It is 16:27 in my body and my brain, but all around me it’s half-past midnight. I’ll land in my evening, just in time to start my day. But that’s fine by me.

Jet lag does not exist.

Or, if jet lag does exist, it may not be what we think it is.

The first use of the term jet lag is credited to Los Angeles Times reporter Horace Sutton, in the newspaper’s February 13, 1966 edition. By that date, commercial travel by jet plane was already 14 years old. Yet nobody had mentioned it before. Why was that?

There’s a clue in the makeup of the passengers. Air travel might have been around for a decade and a half, but air travel undertaken by people who had to stick to schedules, and on a scale large enough to be worth noticing, was new.

Even now, Sutton was still talking in terms of the privileged few. You can almost see him cocking an amused eyebrow as he wrote: ‘If you’re going to be a member of the Jet Set and fly off to Kathmandu for coffee with King Mahendra, you can count on contracting Jet Lag, a debility not unakin to a hangover.’

‘Jet Lag,’ he explained for the benefit of non-jetsetters reading the paper over breakfast, ‘derives from the simple fact that jets travel so fast they leave your body rhythms behind.’

The entry of the word into the language that February morning was an economic moment caught in time. Like the hangover a decade before, jet lag was the badge of sophistication. The breathless, fashion-magazine prose gives the game away. Sutton wasn’t reporting; he was trendspotting. And Sutton’s comparison with a hangover was anything but coincidental.

The stylized, endlessly practiced hangovers that were flaunted, sung of and mythologized by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and the Las Vegas Rat Pack had spoken to the generation impoverished by the Great Depression and World War II, and who had turned the corner in the affluent 1950s. Having a hangover (like gambling in a casino, holidaying in Las Vegas, listening to lounge music or wearing a tux) was a sign you had money, time and friends. You were, in Sinatra’s own favored expression, somebody. In the Mad Men-and-martinis days of the 1950s and early 1960s, the hangover was aspirational.

By the mid-1960s, holidays in the States—even in Nevada—were no longer quite as glamorous. Aspiration is always a high-inflation pastime, and it was calling for a new, more expensive, more exotic badge of cool.

This was an age in which jet propulsion was still remarkable—the leading edge of where science had got us. Put ‘jet’ on something and you were the future. The New York Titans were renamed the New York Jets in 1962, after the engine, and the gang in 1961’s Hollywood smash musical, West Side Story. Between 1964 and 1966, footage of the Beatles getting out of jet aircraft became the sure-fire ratings staple on evening news shows across the world. US TV’s biggest show of 1962-63 was a futuristic family called The Jetsons. Pre-moon landing, it was the last word in taking people somewhere. Most still believed it would remain so.

So Sutton’s ‘Jet Set’ was just that—a very specific, small social set. A defined group of people (heads of state, Hollywood actors, chief executives). They didn’t have to be anywhere anytime except when they were ready.

To the average Joe working the mid-1960s nine-to-five, that one sentence was at the heart of the lifestyle dream.

But that was just where the twist came in. Jet lag is not something that you suffer from because you traveled somewhere fast. You get it for the same reason that you traveled there fast, though. You get it because we count our lives in hours and minutes. (In that sense it is exactly like a hangover: a working person’s affliction. You only suffer if you can’t afford to just stay in bed and sleep through it.)

This is why nobody had heard of Jet Lag—let alone studied its effects—before. While the Jet Set crossed time zones, it didn’t matter. They could rest up, play a round of golf, work to their own schedule. But when army grunts in Vietnam, lower-ranking company employees and other schedule-followers started doing it, they had to hit the ground running. Economic success—maybe even national security—was at stake. This had to be investigated.

The US Federal Aviation Authority’s first tests on the effects of jet lag in December 1965—the snappily named Intercontinental Biomedical Flight Project—were geared toward determining whether pilots and military personnel would be affected. By April 1966—just a couple of months after the LA Times piece—the Chicago White Sox baseball team was reporting that its players routinely suffered from jet lag.

(In fact, the team only routinely crossed a maximum of two time zones from their Chicago base. Jet lag’s ill effects are usually supposed to begin at three. Tricky things, aspirational illnesses.)

Over the coming decades, as jet travel became more democratic, jet lag became a mass phenomenon. Just like hangovers, casino gambling and tuxedos, the more people were at it, the faster it lost its exclusive lifestyle luster. The Royal Society of Medicine noted in 1999 that the condition it most closely resembled was one suffered by factory workers:

‘Today it is commonplace for people to fly across several time zones on business or on holiday. Moreover, many people work at night rather than the conventional 9-5, not only to provide public services but also to use expensive equipment economically and engage in worldwide commerce. Both groups can experience ill effects, known respectively as ‘jet-lag’ or ‘shiftworker’s malaise’.’

And for all the talk of disrupted circadian rhythms, those rhythms alone appear fairly forgiving. For much of our history, sleep was a far more piecemeal affair, and the hours of sleeplessness in the middle of the night were viewed as productive and enjoyable. It is only with our modern lives, based on working days and synchronized diaries, that this becomes a problem. The 3am wide-awakes in a foreign city seem to stretch and devour our time, instead of adding to it.

It turns out that the story of jet lag is the story of economic mobility, just as much as technological miracle. But it’s also the story of our anxiety about that mobility.

Air travel is a force multiplier. What would have taken a single person a month to achieve, even as recently as our own grandparents’ time—a business trip to negotiate a contract in person, or to set up a new office—can now be achieved within 24 hours. As economic units, the single human has become more powerful by a factor of 30 or more.

There are no long passages by ship; they are for cargo nowadays—oil, cars, rice. There are no more arduous detours for mountain ranges, or dangerous treks across deserts. All this we can now skip. Our lives are multiplied. We can fit what would, just 50 years ago, have been many once-in-a-lifetime journeys, into a single year. Our presence is multiplied for others. In a way, thanks to air travel, we can live our lives in many places at once.

In the face of leaps like this, humans tend to get beset by doubt. It’s as if we can’t quite accept our good fortune. We fear that we’re reaching above our station.

(Is the Internet a marvel, delivering happiness, wealth, connectivity and efficiency on an unimagined scale? A dangerous breeding ground for subversion and terror? A means of control and surveillance?)

This is not new. Ancient sacrifices were based partly on the belief that one’s group was somehow favored, and partly on the nagging sense of certainty that good fortune has to be paid for. Our ancestors’ harnessing of fire was a game changer so profound, its benefits so stunning and so absolute, that insecurity and doubt attended it for millennia. Almost all legends around its acquisition—Prometheus in Greece, Hui Lu in China, the coyote in North America—involve theft, running away, the free lunch that we know will be paid for in the end. All imply that it’s just too good to accept at face value. To control fire? There has to be a catch. Hell to pay.

And yet this sense of suspicion that underlies our Faustian bargains with marvelous, counterintuitive, disruptive moments of sudden progress—fire, air travel, internet—is the same sense of wily alertness that’s one of our species’ few natural advantages. If there’s a single tree with untouched fruit in an otherwise bare forest? Well, there’s usually a reason for that. It’s good to consider the downsides. But it can also prevent us from enjoying the advantages we have.

Let’s think again, in that context, about how fundamentally weird, how counterintuitive—supernatural, even, to all but the last few generations—the whole idea of air travel is. Superfast, time-zone-busting, long-distance flights especially. To announce that you could appear on the other side of the world within a day by simply rising 10 kilometers above the clouds and harnessing the properties of air, that you could travel for 14 hours and arrive in only six—or to take the same 14-hour journey the other way and arrive 22 hours on, as I am now about to do, would have seen me burned as a wizard for all but the last few millionths of human history.

Let’s think about the fact that we’re routinely experiencing something that, just 50 years ago, was reported for the first time as the preserve of impossibly wealthy jetsetters who made a habit of zipping over for tea with the King of Nepal.

Let’s think about it. And let’s enjoy it.

Share your jet lag tales—or your views on this story—at #momentumtravel. We’ll feature the best!

Photo: Getty

Matt Potter
Matt Potter (@mattpotter)

Matt Potter is an author, journalist, screenwriter and broadcaster. He’s reported from Asia for the BBC, writes for The Telegraph and presents for the Discovery Channel.

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  1. This writer couldn’t have travelled by air to write such uninformed  mud. For starters, the food on aircraft would make a dog sick. The air on planes is a toxic soup of all the bacteria and viruses exhaled by the passengers. Trying to sleep in a seat designed by a chimpanzee is requires complete exhaustion to set in before the eyelids close unless you travel first class and then you wake with a stiff neck. As you fly up there at 3000 metres you are zapped by huge amounts of cosmic rays that on the ground are filtered by the atmosphere and then when you get to your destination the food and water are not kind to the digestion.

    The airlines should be paying us to fly.

  2. Yep.. try going from England to Australia and then saying jet lag doesn’t exist.

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