Does Your Commute Have to Make You Miserable?

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I recently transitioned from a 10 minute commute to a 35 minute commute. All of the research indicates that this switch should be making me desperately unhappy. So far, however, I am not miserable. Here’s why.

I didn’t want to move to the suburbs. As someone who has lived in a major metropolitan city since 2001, I viewed city-living as part of my identity. But my husband took a job an hour away and the commute was killing him. We talked about finding a home halfway between our two jobs. Next thing I knew, I was living the plot of Green Acres (I should add that, other than my Green Acres reference, there is nothing remotely green about my increased commute. I plan to purchase carbon offsets in an attempt to redeem myself with Mother Nature and decrease my guilt).  

Research shows commutes are killer

For years, my husband and I lived comfortably in Washington, D.C., with no car at all. Only when I decided to attend law school in Nashville did we realize that we needed a vehicle. We became a one-car family, and my husband primarily drove the car for his commute to work.

Once we moved to Minnesota, I initially walked or took the bus to work. I am a huge fan of walking to work: it’s built in exercise, a chance to gather your thoughts, and a good time to chat on the phone with friends or family. When we moved a little further from downtown, I started taking the bus. Bus commuting, however, proved a step-down from walking. It’s impossible to talk on the phone on a bus. Either you are whispering (and the person on the other end thinks you’re crazy) or you are a really annoying person on the bus—everyone can hear your conversation. This makes work conversations impossible. Also as an attorney, I can’t always predict my schedule. I may need to work late or arrive early, and I could walk to work anytime I wanted. Bus schedules, especially in Minneapolis (don’t laugh New Yorkers), are a more limited. I would find myself calling my husband for a ride if I needed to work late or attend a client dinner downtown. And nothing says “I am a grown up attorney,” like having to call your husband for a ride home after a client dinner. I felt a tad sheepish about the whole the thing. I was ready for a car, even if it meant a longer commute.

That said, all the research shows that commutes are killer. “Couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce.”  (I reassured myself that I was only going to have a 30 minute commute; since we were cutting my husband’s commute in half we were actually laowering these odds). Workers with  long commutes feel less rested and experience less “enjoyment,” out of life. And, time spent in the car is a lost opportunity—you’re not working, exercising, spending time with loved ones, or engaging in a hobby.

I was nervous about the toll commuting would take on me.

But is it ever worth it?

Commuting, however, has not made me less happy. In part, my sustained happiness has something to do with my car. When we moved, it was clear that we would need two cars since we would be working in opposite directions. Some people might take this opportunity to find their dream car. My goal? Purchase the most comfortable commuting vehicle (with not terrible gas mileage) that I could find for less than $10,000 and with less than 75,000 miles. I am only slightly embarrassed to report that these criteria resulted in my purchase of a 2008 PT Cruiser. Unlike my last car, this one has air conditioning. The seats are comfortable.

I’ve also learned that time in the car doesn’t make me unhappy, but sitting in gridlock tends to put me on edge. Experts hypothesize that traffic may trigger in us primal instincts that evolved in humans to promote survival, so that we can protect ourselves against threats. These primal instincts can lead to “aggressive, combative, competitive” driving which can raise our hackles for the rest of the day.

Consequently, I’ve obsessively figured out the best commuting times (and the best routes) to avoid sitting in traffic. I leave early in the morning (which I would do regardless) and speed into work with no traffic. If I stay past six, I can also avoid the afternoon rush. If I’m flying towards home, I am less likely to begin grumbling at my fellow travelers and my lot in life.

But commuting does present some challenges. When I hear my email indicator sound, it is difficult to resist checking my phone on the road (and I don’t always succeed, even though I know it’s wrong). And, new research confirms what we all suspected: even hands-free phone use for talking or texting is dangerous. “By many measures, drivers yakking on cellphones are more dangerous behind the wheel than those who are drunk, whether the conversation is carried on by handset or headset,” experts reported this week. Yet, I find it impossible to avoid answering the phone on the way home.

But, while talking on the phone or with a passenger is “moderately distracting,” listening to the radio or a book on tape is not. I’ve been trying to redirect myself listening to a lot of NPR (so much so that most of my conversations start with “I just heard this story on NPR . . . .”). I have heard rumors about people using commute time to listen to books on tape or learn a language. That said, after a thought-intensive day at work, I am not sure that I have the mental acuity (or the willpower) to focus on learning a language.

Although I’ve read the research, I don’t think it’s commuting per se that makes people unhappy. I think unhappiness stems from a frustrated sense that time is being wasted. Ensuring that I don’t sit idling in traffic, am comfortable, and have an activity to occupy (but not stress out) my brain helps me enjoy the commute. And, enjoying the work and the family on either end of the commute doesn’t hurt either.

(image: Rush hour in Wroclaw, Poland from Shutterstock)

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  • Mark

    My commute is about 40-45 minutes. Music is what keeps me sane. Today it was the new Black Sabbath album on my way to work. Tonight some Killswitch Engage for the ride home. I acknowledge no work related interruptions during these drives.

  • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

    A nice car can do wonders for sanity in traffic, actually. I owned an Audi for a few years, and actually enjoyed sitting in its quiet cabin in bumper-to-bumper traffic, isolated from the stress of rush hour.

    If it’s in the budget (it’s not for us, now that we’ve got two kids in daycare), a bit of luxury can make your commute a lot more pleasant.

    • disqus_bepNCS8boN

      I agree (it’s just that the 2008 PT Cruiser is a luxury car after the 1998 Honda Civic with no air conditioning)

  • Jon

    My Denver commute is a good time to take of the attorney hat and put the daddy hat back on. It goes from stress at work to calm in gridlock to stress at home. If I didn’t have time to take it easy in traffic I wouldn’t have one minute to myself during the day. Plus having some distance (at least now) between work and home helps because there can be no lunch hour runs to school/pharmacy/store or whatever other tasks need to be done during the day. The 25 mile distance and the 30-40 minutes in traffic really helps me balance things.

  • David

    The ride home can be a wonderful way to unwind. The stress of gridlock (and semi’s towering on either side of you) can make work related tension just vanish. Great article Sybil – Thanks!

  • moedogs

    I love putting library ebooks on my ipod and listening to that in the car. It’s mindless fiction typically but sometimes some enlightening non-fiction. Friends I know also listen to legal tech related podcasts during their commutes. (We are the geeks that support the lawyers. When not listening to NPR, library books rule!) Not sure if your 2008 has a USB port or an auxiliary port, but hey, worth a shot.

  • Char

    My commute used to be about 45 minutes to an hour because of traffic, although the distance I traveled to get to work from one city to the other was only 10 km (I’m a lawyer from the Philippines, by the way). I stuck with it for almost two years but I was so miserable being stuck in traffic for two hours a day getting to and from work, I switched jobs. I now have a 10 minute commute and definitely more relaxed and happy.

  • Amanda

    One of my favorite podcasts during doc review was Things You Missed in History Class. If it could keep me sane during doc review, it will help while commuting. :)

  • MARC’d for death?

    I commute ~2 hours each way, everyday… but this is a combination of walking, buses, and trains, so I guess it could be worse. I listen to a ton of audio books via iPod and Android phone.

  • Lee King

    When I worked in Houston, last, I had a 30 mile (one way) commute.

    I made it bearable by riding my motorcycle. I would change at work and we were close enough to the courthouse that we invariably had a staff member take us and pick us up.

    I loved it, buy your mileage may vary. :)