Between gas, car maintenance, bus fare, and train tickets, commuting can get expensive. Driving a mile in the US costs around $0.55, according to the IRS, and some estimates (PDF) even peg this country’s working poor as spending close to 10% of their income on commuting. Financial experts suggest that a one way commute of 20 miles (which is roughly average) will cost you almost $50,000 every ten years. If you’re one of the 600,000 “mega-commuters” who travel at least 90 minutes each direction in the US, your costs skyrocket.
But commuting isn’t just financially costly. It also eats time we could otherwise spend with friends, family, and our children – or getting much-needed sleep. It cuts into leisure time that would be better spent reading, writing, creating, or doing absolutely nothing at all but relaxing and being. It adds constant, chronic stress to our lives. It thrusts us into a daily fight or flight situation with huge metal monsters whizzing by and cutting in front of us. It turns other commuters into our mortal enemies, if only for a minute or two. It makes it harder to prepare and enjoy a healthy home-cooked meal. And it makes us more unhealthy.
In other words, commuting costs us time and money, but it can also cost us life, love, health, sleep, and freedom. Expensive habit, eh?
Let’s take a closer look at the high costs of commuting to see if it’s worth all the trouble.
Obviously, time spent in the car is time not spent doing health-promoting things like working out or cooking because you can’t do those while driving (well, maybe you could do kegels or something). The longer your commute, the more it takes away from food preparation (and subsequent consumption of said food), exercising, and other healthy acts. Each minute spent commuting is “associated with a 0.0257 minute exercise time reduction, a 0.0387 minute food preparation time reduction, and a 0.2205 minute sleep time reduction.”
And sure enough, several studies have found strong associations between commute time and poor health. In 2012 (PDF), researchers linked long commutes to less physical activity, lower cardiovascular fitness, larger waists, higher BMIs, and more hypertension in Texas adults. Overall, a long commute predicted poorer metabolic health. Another study found that vehicle miles traveled was the strongest predictor of obesity among Californians. Long commutes may also be more harmful to women than men, with long commuting women dying earlier than short commuting women.
A recent study shows that with each additional minute of commuting time, we feel worse and worse. Our sense of well-being plummets and our anxiety increases. Oddly, this trend reverses once you hit a three hour commute; people who commute for three hours or more each day report greater life satisfaction. Higher pay (which often accompanies longer commutes) doesn’t seem to make up for the lost happiness, either. According to the study, telecommuters report the greatest satisfaction, lowest stress, and highest sense of well-being.
The longer the commute, the greater the stress. What’s worse: commuting is a reliable source of stress. You have to do it. It’s always there, lurking in the mind’s periphery. Sunday morning? You’re not focusing on the delicious coffee in front of you. You’re dreading the hour-long drive tomorrow. And the commute itself is fraught with stress, both chronic (the daily grind) and acute (the jerk changing lanes without signaling).
Until self-driving cars become available to consumers (a technology I for one eagerly await), commuting necessarily cuts into sleep time. You can’t drive and sleep at the same time, and the longer the commute, the earlier you have to wake up and go to bed if you want good, sufficient sleep. That’s just the morning, though. You also have to consider the commute back home. The more time that takes, the less free time you’ll have at night before you have to hit the hay to get enough sleep. It gets messy fast, particularly because people with long commutes still need to decompress and enjoy themselves at night. They’re not robots who just power down for the night. They’re likely to stay up later and suffer in the morning.
Even when we’re pushing through the throngs of humanity, we’re alone. No one wants to be there. No one’s cheery enough to chat, except maybe the guy with a quad espresso running through his veins. Most Americans drive to work in single occupancy cars. Millions of us file along the road, isolated and oblivious to the people around us (until they cut us off or drive too close and we yell obscenities). There’s no more robust a predictor of social isolation than a long commute, according to Robert Putnam, a social scientist and expert on the disintegration of American civic life. And social isolation is disastrous for our health and our happiness.
I mean that literally: a survey (PDF) of women found that commuting, especially in the morning, was the most unpleasant thing they had to do on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, the women’s favorite acts – sex and socializing after work – are both directly inhibited by a long commute. What makes this even worse is that we have to do this thing we hate more than anything – twice a day, every single day. It’s like a chronic illness that we’ve just learned to accept.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You can make changes, tweaks to your schedule, your routine, even your career that either mitigate the deleterious effects of the commute or eliminate them altogether.
People often assume that telecommuting means slacking off or getting nothing done, but that hasn’t been my experience. Several of my employees telecommute, including my general manager who’s currently living in Australia, and it works out great. I’m a big supporter of telecommuting. Research backs me up, with telecommuters experiencing less work-family conflict, a greater sense of autonomy, less stress, and more job satisfaction. The main potential downside is a lack of personal contact with co-workers, which can modestly harm work relationships (but doesn’t have to).
If you really have to commute – and let’s face it, most of us do – try incorporating some active movement like biking or walking. Obviously, if you’re driving 60 miles on the interstate each way to work, biking probably isn’t feasible. But if you’re sitting in traffic for 20 or 30 minutes just to go 15 miles, or taking 15 minutes to drive 2 miles, you could easily do that on a bike or on your feet. Research shows that people who walk or bike to work experience less stress as a result of their commute and rate their mode of transportation as more enjoyable, exciting, and relaxing. They’re still commuting and it’s still taking up free time, but at least they’re getting some exercise out of it, avoiding additional stress, and perhaps even reducing their risk of early mortality.
When it comes to stress, perception is almost everything. Instead of flipping off the guy who cut you off, ignore it and smile. Don’t use the horn vindictively. Use it prophylactically to prevent accidents or warn other drivers. I mean, who really cares that a guy didn’t let you in or forgot to use a blinker or honked at you? Don’t give in to the anger welling up because someone did something in a car near you. It does nothing but make your commute more stressful. You may have to fake it until you make it, but you’ll be reciting zen koans and perceiving the cosmic oneness of all mankind on the commute in no time.
If you’re sitting in traffic, you should try to enjoy yourself. Don’t listen to AM talk radio hosts whose alignments run opposite yours. Don’t wallow in “anger porn.” Heck, I’d avoid politics altogether. Instead, listen to good music. Throw on audiobooks. Subscribe to a podcast or two. Make the most of your situation.
I know, I know. It’s sacrilege to even suggest this, but switching to a lower-paying job with an easy or nonexistent commute might be worth it. You’ll have more time with your family and friends. You’ll have more time with yourself. You’ll get more sleep. You can finally go take that krav maga or yoga class you’ve been considering. You’ll save on gas and wear-and-tear car repairs. You might actually get a chance to cook a real Primal meal every night rather than pick up something resembling food on the way home. And a new job doesn’t even have to mean lower pay. You might find something closer and better-paying and more interesting if you actually rouse yourself from homeostasis and go look. Pursuing your dream can work.
Since nearly everyone commutes, and most of you are probably reading this at work or en route to work, I hope you’ll really consider the thrust of today’s post. It’s not an easy thing to confront the possibility that we’re actively curtailing our health and happiness on a daily basis, nor is it simple to change gears and make a huge shift, but it might be a good move. Let me know what you guys think in the comment section. Thanks for reading!