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What Will My Commute Be?

1. Current or Future Home Address
  2. Work Address
Comparison Addresses car icon train icon walking icon

Considering a move or a job change? You’re probably wondering: How long will my commute be? It’s an important question, but one that needs a little clarification. Will you be commuting by car? If so, how bad will traffic be? Will you be commuting by public transportation? If so, will you be taking the train, bus or metro? Will you be commuting alone or with a friend or partner? Why all the questions? Because your answers can determine the impact that your commute has on your happiness and life satisfaction.

Spending a little bit of time traveling between home and work can be healthy. It gives you time to gear up for the work day in the morning and transition to home life in the evening. If your commute is too long, though, you could face a number of negative consequences.

More commuting, more problems

In happiness studies, commuting consistently ranks at or near the bottom of human activities. The biggest offender is commuting alone in a car. It makes us feel more isolated and powerless, and cuts into our time for community engagement, exercise and sleep. It also raises our blood pressure and our risk of obesity. Nice, right?

Uncertainty matters

We humans are pretty adaptable. We can get used to a lot of negative circumstances (winter in the Northeast, anyone?). For some reason, though, we have a hard time getting used to a rough commute. Researchers think that’s because commuting (especially by car) is always a little different. It’s hard to predict traffic or transit delays, or say exactly when our families can expect us home for dinner.

The uncertainty involved in commuting – we don’t know how long or how awful to expect our commute to be – means that the time we spend traveling to work never really grows on us. If you commute by train, you’ll feel this less because trains tend to be more reliable. Commuting by metro is not as reliable as commuting by train, but still better than commuting by bus or car, both of which leave you vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the day’s traffic.

Talk to strangers

One of the reasons that commuting by car tends to lower our happiness levels is that we (usually) do it alone. It’s time when we’re not getting the kind of social connection we can get with our coworkers, friends or family. You can try getting a commute buddy or using a rideshare program to make your commute more social. If you commute by public transit instead of by car, take advantage of the opportunity to talk to your fellow human beings. Studies show you’ll be happier for it, even if you get a few weird looks at first.

Treat your body like the temple it is

Long commutes aren’t just bad for our mental health. They’re also bad for our physical health. The longer a person’s commute, the less likely he or she is to see friends, participate in community events or exercise, all of which make us healthier and reduce the negative health impacts of workday stress. People with longer commutes are also less likely to cook at home and more likely to choose unhealthy fast food instead. We know you know what to do: make time for exercise and eat healthier food. It’s just that it’s harder to make good decisions when you’re exhausted from a long commute. One more thing while we’re on the subject of health: people who drive many miles to work and back are more likely to have back and neck problems. If this is all sounding familiar to you, you may want to consider moving closer to work, or searching for a job closer to home.

americans' commute time pie chart

Use your commute

What if a long commute is necessary, to accommodate your job, your partner’s job, your kids’ school or your dream home? There are some things you can do to make the most of your commuting time. First off, unplug from work emails and avoid looking at a screen. By all means use your device to set up music, podcasts or lectures, but avoid fiddling with it or staring at it (especially if you’re driving!).

Imagine arriving at the office having already mastered a French grammar point, learned the causes of WWI or caught up on the week in foreign affairs. With a little advanced planning, this could be you. No matter how your workday goes, if you have a block of time before and after work to pursue your interests, listen to music you love or catch up on a podcast that makes you laugh, you’ll have had a solid day.

The not-so-good news is that Americans’ average commute times have risen consistently over the decades. The good news, though, is that we now have more tools at our disposal to turn that commute time into useful time. We can save articles on our devices to read on the train, download podcasts, subscribe to free college course lectures and access audiobooks for a more literary commute.

Ask about commuter benefits

Whether you’re commuting by car, parking and riding or taking public transport, you may be eligible for commuter benefits through your employer. Ask about programs that deduct your commute-related expenses from your pre-tax income, lessening the paycheck impact of your monthly metro card or parking pass.

Remember how commuting feels

When faced with the prospect of a beautiful home in the country or a well-paid new job, it’s easy to assume that either or both of those things will make you so happy that you won’t mind a long commute. Not true, at least according to psychological research. If you’re deciding where to live or which house to buy, remember that the negative impact of a long commute can easily outweigh the positive impact of a bigger yard or a spare bedroom.

Looking ahead

Research shows that millennials are much less likely to commute by car, and much less willing to take a job that would entail a long commute. Commercial real estate developers are finding it harder to fill those giant office parks in the middle of nowhere, because companies know it’s harder to attract young talent to that kind of an office and the commute-heavy lifestyle it entails. The anti-driving trend among millennials may mean a reversal in commute-time trends in the long term. Until that day comes, head to your local library for an audiobook that strikes your fancy and turn your commute time into your “me” time.