When asked to name the worst part of our day by happiness researchers, we consistently name commuting as at least one of our least favorite activities. And yet, many of us choose long commutes (the average American commute is 50 minutes per day; 9 out of 10 are by car). It’s an inconsistency that has troubled academics.
Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer say too many of us make an unequal tradeoff: they call it the “Commuting Paradox” (Stress that doesn’t pay: the Commuting Paradox). According to economics, people should be compensated- either economically or emotionally- for the burden of their commute, but Frey and Stutzer found that “people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being”.
The rewards associated with longer commutes- a bigger house, a higher salary or better schools- don’t fully compensate for the sacrifices we end up making by working so far from home (e.g. less time with family and health issues like back pain, higher cholesterol, weight gain, and anxiety).
Why do we make the mistake of choosing long commutes if they tend to make us less happy? It turns out our focus, and judgement, are off.
Long commutes happen when you focus on the wrong things
One possible reason for our error in judgement is what psychologists call a weighting mistake, or a focusing illusion. By simply choosing to consider a higher salary or a bigger house in the suburbs (those things that contribute to a longer commute), we give them more weight than they deserve.
So instead of focusing on what would really make us happier- more leisure, more time with friends/family and more focus on health- we become fixated on the bigger income or bigger backyard and choose the longer commute.
Interestingly enough, it’s not for lack of analysis that we often choose wrong. Researchers have found that the more time we spend thinking about that extra bedroom or extra income, the more we think we really need it and the more likely we are to choose the longer commute.
To get it right, we need to adjust our focus.
“You can’t adapt to commuting”
Another reason we tend to choose badly when deciding the distance between work and home is simply that we aren’t very good at assessing the true costs of a commute. Intuitively, we think that a higher salary will make us happier and that we will get used to spending time in the car.
In reality, we quickly grow accustomed to material things like more income or a bigger house and, what most of us fail to realize, we have much more trouble getting used to the stresses of commuting.
Strangely enough, it’s not the bad traffic per se that adds to the commuting burden, but the uncertainty of our commutes that makes them so difficult.
“You can’t adapt to commuting, because it’s entirely unpredictable,” explains Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”
Before agreeing to a long commute, read this
There are, perhaps, reasons to choose a longer commute. Frey and Stutzer performed very exacting calculations and found that to be compensated for a one hour commute- versus none at all-, you would need to make a 40% higher salary.
The extra income might help with overall happiness, especially if it helps to pay for experiences (studies show experiences more than things boost happiness), but a longer commute can also affect those things that rank high in happiness studies: your relationships.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam can even offer a calculation. “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”
Of course all commutes are not created equal. I know some people who genuinely seem to enjoy their time in the car… or on their bike, scooter, etc.
My commute is a 5 minute walk through Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter to my daughter’s school and while there are days, but most of the time, once out the door, it’s one of the happiest moments of my day.