Juliana Breines Ph.D.

In Love and War

7 Ways to Make a Long Commute Less Painful

It’s all about perspective.

Posted Sep 29, 2016

Around 1 in 5 Americans commute at least 35 minutes to work each way, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And for a growing number of people, it’s closer to 90 minutes—or more. That’s a lot of time to spend sitting in traffic.

Not surprisingly, a 2006 study measuring how much happiness people derive from daily activities found that the morning commute was dead last on the list, with the evening commute close behind. Even more worrisome, commuting length (especially by car) is positively correlated with a range of health problems, from weight gain to elevated blood pressure. Health problems may be related to lack of sleep, added sedentary time, exposure to air pollution, or stress.

The best solution to a long commute may be to shorten it—move closer to work or change jobs. But that’s not an option for everyone.

If you’re stuck with a long commute, there are ways to make it more bearable. Here are some suggestions.

1. Carpool. One of the biggest reasons long commutes are so unpleasant is because they’re lonely. In the study mentioned above, results showed that when commuters were accompanied by someone during their commute, they enjoyed it more, pointing to the importance of social contact for happiness. Carpooling is not only good for the spirit—it’s also better for the environment and more cost-efficient.

2. Treat it like work time. If you’re commuting by bus and train and are able to work productively during that time, find out whether you can officially make that time part of your workday, allowing you to leave a bit later in the morning and earlier at the end of the day, when possible. More and more companies are embracing flexible schedules and remote work arrangements, and working on a train is not much different than working from home. Even better, see if you can work from home at least one day a week, reducing your overall commuting hours.

3. Treat it like leisure time. An alternative approach is to try to make your commute as pleasant and enjoyable as possible. Listen to comedy shows or audiobooks, explore new music, or catch up with old friends (to the extent that you can do so safely and legally—be sure to check cell phone laws in your state). Driving is also a perfect opportunity to sing aloud to your favorite songs with no one judging you; singing, no matter how bad you are, can help reduce stress hormones and increase positive emotions.

4. Move your body. One of the worst parts of a long commute has to be the endless sitting. It’s boring and sometimes even painful, leading to back and neck aches. If you commute by bus or train, take stretch breaks when possible. If you’re behind the wheel, movement is more limited but not impossible. You can roll your shoulders, straighten your back, and stretch your calves. If your commute exceeds an hour, make it a habit to pull over at a rest area and walk around for a few minutes, or do this once you arrive at work.

5. Rethink your route. It’s tempting to take the shortest route possible, but sometimes the time saved isn’t worth the added stress, especially if the shorter route is more complicated or traffic-laden. The fewer multi-lane merges, crazy intersections, and road rage filled drivers you encounter, the better. Routes that are more unpredictable tend to be the most stressful. Sometimes it’s better to plan for a slightly longer but smoother ride. But if your route starts to feel monotonous, switching it up every once in awhile and exploring new terrain and help prevent boredom.

6. Take time to reflect. In a recent study, participants who were randomly assigned to reflect on their personal and professional goals during their commute reported increased job satisfaction and less emotional exhaustion after six weeks. In the hustle and bustle of life, we don’t always have the chance to reflect in this way. Our commute can be a rare opportunity to take a broader perspective on where we are and where we want to go from here. Alternatively, a long commute can help us put work behind us at the end of the day; greater physical distance between home and work can be a good thing to the extent that it helps us keep the two realms psychologically separate as well, helping us transition less abruptly from one to the other.

7. Be grateful. If you suffer through a long commute, you deserve self-compassion—it’s not easy and it can definitely take a toll, no matter how positive your attitude. But there’s also room for gratitude, to feel thankful that you have a job and a way to get there, however inconvenient it may be. Or to marvel at how modern technology allows us get from one place to another so much faster than our ancestors could ever dream of. Even if you’re not feeling very grateful for your commute itself, you can take the time to think about other good things in your life. Research suggests that gratitude is associated not only with happiness, but also with reduced inflammation and improved cardiovascular health. That said, we should never confuse gratitude for acceptance of an intolerable or unjust situation; for some people, a long commute simply isn’t sustainable, and the best solution is to find a way out. But for many others, a shift in perspective can go a long way.

More Posts