If I ever get ahead of myself, and start thinking how well I am managing to keep calm and happy in this crazy city, all I need to do is take the tube in rush hour. 20 minutes of having people barging past me, pushing their backpacks into my face as I try to find a place to stand where I can hold onto something to avoid falling into the person next to me as the train stops…I completely lose my zen.
I try to tell myself it’s good training for life, but the truth is that if I can avoid the tube, I do. Until recently, I had no choice. I was living 50 minutes away from where I worked, and found that made it a bit too long to cycle, so public transport was the only option. I’d get home at the end of the day exhausted and grumpy. My internal monologue was a string of huffy comments about inconsiderate people – smartphone zombies who expect you to get out of their way, manspreaders who feel the need to sit with their legs sprawled onto you…
Now I walk into work, and it has made a massive difference to my quality of life and overall sense of wellbeing. I pick the back streets to maximise the greenery I walk past, and minimise the hussle and bussle. It made me start to wonder how our daily commute affected our happiness, and whether there was any information on it.
The wonderful What Works Wellbeing pointed me in the direction of the latest research on this. One clear thing that comes out very clearly is that a longer commute makes people more miserable. BUT strangely, a very long commute (i.e. over 90 minutes) is related to people who are more satisfied with their lives. The data doesn’t indicate why this is the case, but I have a guess. Last week I asked a friend with two kids, a stressful job and a long commute, when she gets time to herself. She told me she got it on her commute. People with long commutes tend to travel by rail, they tend to get a seat, and they tend to use the time to watch the world go by and think. Linked to this, people do seem to be happier if they travel by rail rather than other methods of transport.
There is also contradictory evidence on whether cycling and walking makes you happier than other forms of transport. I found that cycling made a huge difference to me – I got outside time every day, I got exercise so I slept better, and I always knew how long it would take me, roughly, to get somewhere. But some data seems to show walking and cycling make people less happy (other data shows the opposite). Although I can’t be sure, I suspect that this is because they are also the cheapest forms of transport and so people who are struggling financially use them. Their happiness is lower due to other factors. In my experience, cycling to work makes a huge positive difference to happiness.
Finally, one of the things that interested me most was that women dislike their commutes more than men. This really rings true. The researchers suggested this could be because of caring commitments of women – we are in more of a rush to get home to pick up kids etc. But I’m not sure that explains the whole story. I think it may also be because we feel more vulnerable when our physical space is invaded, which often happens on a commute. A survey by Transport for London in 2013 found that 1 in 7 women had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport in the previous year. So even when we are not experiencing direct harassment, our guard has to be up, making the whole experience more stressful.
What can we do about this? I think the first thing is to recognise that commuting impacts our wellbeing, and work out ways to improve it. Cycling and walking are good options if possible. Taking the long way round may be worth it. Getting a bus if you know you can get a seat, even though the tube would be quicker. And paying for a cab, if it is going to make a big difference to you.
There are also things we can do to make the actual process of travelling less stressful. I try to catch myself when I have a furious response to someone cutting in front of me in the ticket line. I try to check my response and send compassion instead – imagining how stressful their day has been, and how eager they are to get home. I sometimes try a Tonglen practice, where I breathe in the negative feelings around me and breathe out warmth and compassion. That helps, though I still have a long way to go before I’m likely to start enjoying my commute!