Here’s why your daily commute may be destroying your happiness

Takeaway: The length of your daily commute to and from work has a huge effect on your happiness. Research shows that “a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office.” If you’re not careful, your daily commute can cost you more than you realize—in time, money, and happiness.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 20s.

 

Commute

Occasionally a book comes along that changes the way you think about a topic. Happy City, by Charles Montgomery, is one of those books. It will change the way you look at how your city is structured, while giving you a bunch of pointers for how you can structure your own life to become happier.

Curiously, one of the biggest determinants of how happy you are with your living situation is your commute time to and from work. On the surface, this is obvious advice. Of course people are going to be less happy when their commute time is longer. But the magnitude to which your daily commute time affects your happiness is staggering. As Montgomery writes, according to research conducted by Alois Stutter and Bruno Frey:

  • “A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office.”

(Emphasis mine.)

That’s a lot more money—and time and work—to achieve the same level of happiness. And of course, this figure doesn’t account for the amount of money your time is worth while you get yourself to and from work, or the time you spend working to pay for the vehicle that gets you there. As Montgomery later writes:

  • “Any honest assessment of travel time has to include the hours you spend working to pay for your vehicle,” including the costs that are “hidden in loan financing, parking fees, repairs, tolls, accessories, maintenance, and depreciation.”

In money, time, and happiness, the costs associated with a long daily commute add up very quickly.

Us humans are actually pretty good at adapting as the conditions in our life—including how much money we make—change for better or worse. This is why our level of happiness stays relatively constant over the years. But what makes our daily commute so disruptive to our happiness compared to other conditions in our life is that a commute is inherently difficult to adapt to. Every daily commute is different, with “different people honking at us, different intersections jammed with accidents, different problems with weather, and so on.”

Happiness is inherently more difficult to quantify than time and money, but the costs associated with a long commute time are so great that they have even been shown to influence your overall life satisfaction. This graph, based on research conducted by Stutter and Frey, says it all:

Commute-graph

Luckily, the relationship works in the other direction, too. Montgomery writes that “for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.”

Unlike some other articles on this site, this is tough advice to internalize and then act upon. The average person moves just 11.4 times in his or her life, and will change jobs about as many times. But when your commute time can cost you so much in time, money, and happiness, it’s worth weighing heavily.

  • Brad

    I have a 45 to 75-minute daily commute; one-way. I use the time to my benefit to listen to educational material on management, leadership, productivity, and health among other topics. I love this quiet time. I’m not sure I could carve out a couple of hours a day for personal growth of it wasn’t for my commute time.

    • giorgie

      I’m on the same page with Brad – although I usually don’t sit in traffic for more than 30-40mins – one-way – exceptionally 1 hour – I also enjoy listening to e-books, motivational speeches etc. I started doing this after my colleagues told me that they read while riding the tube :-))

  • Holly Barlow

    this article is interesting and informative, but I have to point out that the graphic has a serious flaw: Since the vertical axis goes from 6.9 to 7.3 (rather than 0 to 7.3 or 0 to 10), the drop in happiness level appears to be much greater than it is. As someone who understands that many people SKIM articles (thanks for your little abstract box at the top of each article!) I thought you’d like to be reminded that many people look at graphs for the “feel” of them, and this one gives the wrong impression visually.

    • ajin thomas

      Well said…It just goes to show that we view a graph how the way we want it and not the bigger picture.

  • This is so spot on. I used to have a 45 minute to one hour commute each way and it was a kill. It got better when I started listening to podcasts during the drive, but in the end I still hated it. The new job I have with a school, picks me up from my apartment complex (along with other teachers) and it takes about 10 minutes to get to work. I’m way happier now.

  • Flower Violet

    I totally recommend meditating the journey away for those with public transport commutes. Obviously it’s not exactly idea if you drive of course!

    http://www.rosieleizrowice.com

  • It looks like the study focuses on driving commute. What about public transport commutes?

  • pradeep

    There are some upsides to travel time – i listen to local news and gossip on the radio and every now and then a few pearls of wisdom drop into your lap. If it wasn’t for the heavy traffic, i would be reluctant to reduce my drive time

  • Taras

    When we moved back to Jacksonville from Seattle, we got a place close to work. I have been walking to work for 6 months now, and couldn’t have been happier. It’s worth the money we pay in rent.
    In fact, I’ve been choosing a place to live within a 5-mile range from work for about 4 years now, and I really don’t want to do it any other way.

  • ajin thomas

    The graph is very misleading, you have mentioned commuting time is minutes and on the other side…its life satisfaction in what??? (on a scale of 1 to 10?? etc/bananas or mangoes).
    But the point clearly stands that the commute can have a huge impact on happiness.

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