When my husband and I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, it took me an hour to drive twelve miles from our home in Bethesda, MD to my job in Falls Church, VA. Dan’s commute was a ten minute walk. That’s love right there. I didn’t need the research to tell me I hated my commute. It was pretty obvious that a better commute would make me happier.
In case you’re questioning the importance of your commuting situation, improving your commute when you move can impact your happiness, health, and relationships. If you’ve already settled down, I have some tips on how you can make your commute better, too.
What’s the Relationship Between Commuting and Happiness?
There’s a clear correlation between your commute and how happy you are. In a famous study of 909 employed women in Texas, commuting ranked dead last on the happiness scale. What came in at the top? Intimate relations, socializing after work, and relaxation. The morning commute, work, and the evening commute came in at the bottom. Another study conducted in Sweden evaluated how the work commute affected overall life satisfaction and emotional well-being. The data from 713 work commuters showed that satisfaction with a work commute has a “substantial influence on overall happiness.” In other words, we should take this commuting stuff seriously.
Does My Commute Impact my Health?
If you’re sitting in a car all day commuting, it’s not good news for your waistline. In a study of 3,800 German industrial employees, they found that “commuting was positively correlated with waist circumference” and that “no other association with variables of physical, psychological, or mental health and well-being could be found.” Well, that’s good. Unfortunately, other reports find that it increases your stress levels and reduces reported sleep.
Does My Commute Affect My Relationships?
Robert Putnam, Harvard Professor of Public Policy and author of Bowling Alone, worries about all the time we spend “shuttling alone in metal boxes.” It’s true. We spend a lot of time alone in our cars. Of the 120 million commuters in the U.S. who drive to work, more than 75% drive alone. Putnam describes how even 10 minutes can significantly impact our social relations and our ties to the community:
In round numbers the evidence suggests that each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent…And time diary studies suggest that there is a similarly strong negative effect of commuting time on informal social interaction.
So, that’s the not-so-good news. On the plus side, you can make some changes.
How Can I Make My Commute Better?
Walk or bike to work
The happiness research shows that you’ll be happier if you walk or bike to work, even if this means that you have a longer commute. Do a quick check with Google Maps to see how long it’ll take you to walk or bike to work from your new place. To find out how a home stacks up from an overall walkability standpoint, plug the address into WalkScore.com. This will tell you how easy it is to shop for groceries or find entertainment options without having to get into your car. Even if walking to work isn’t a possibility for you, maybe walking to everything else can be.
Since you’re moving, consider living closer to work, even if it means a smaller place
Research also shows that a bigger house doesn’t equal more happiness. So, as much as that nice, big home may be calling your name, think about whether it’s worth it. Yes, a good community and safety will improve your life satisfaction, but more stuff and a bigger house won’t. Take the whole package into consideration before you settle on a place to live.
Carpool with a friend
In one survey, almost 45% of drivers agreed that “driving is my time to think and enjoy being alone.” However, since we spend so much of our time driving alone, there’s still the consequence of missing out on social interaction. If a daily carpool is too much for you, make it a weekly or a monthly thing. Use that time to catch up with a co-worker or a friend.
Change your commuting schedule
A small change in your schedule can make a big difference in how much traffic you endure. Test out different times. Try to leave earlier in the morning and find a place near work to grab a cup of coffee or read the paper or take a nap. It’s better than sitting in traffic. On your way home, take a cue from those women in Texas who listed the top activities that made them happy. Socialize after work near your workplace and avoid rush hour.
Make social phone calls or listen to podcasts
Use your time in the car to get things done that make you happy. Learn about medieval history or the latest tech gadgets while you listen to a podcast or a history course on CD. Call an old friend. Even if you’re not a phone person, it’s like carpooling with a buddy for a little while. Think of all the things you would do with your free time if you didn’t have to commute and find ways to do them in your car. Within reason, of course.
How do you make the most of your commute time?
 Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster (2000), p. 212.
 McKenzie, Brian and Melanie Rapino. Commuting in the United States. 2009 American Community Survey Reports. Issued September 2011. Statistics from 2016 also found at Statistics Brain.
 Putnam, 213.
 Putnam, 213.