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)