Commuting and Happiness

Excellent article in the New Yorker on the underestimated psychological effects of commuting. A few choice excerpts:

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

Drivers often say they prize the time alone—to gather their wits, listen to music, or talk on the phone. They also like the freedom, the ability, illusory though it may be, to come and go as they please; schedules can seem an imposition, as can a crowded train’s cattle-car ambience. But the driver’s seat is a lonely place. People tend to behave in their cars as though they are alone in a room. Road rage is one symptom of this; on the street or on the train, people don’t generally walk around calling each other assholes. Howard Stern is another; you can listen to lewd evocations without feeling as though you were pushing the bounds of the social contract. You could drive to work without your pants on, and no one would know.

The loneliness quotient might also account for some of the commute tolerance in New York. On the train or the bus, one can experience an illusion of fellowship, even if you disdain your fellow-passengers or are revolted by them. Perhaps there’s succor in inadvertent eye contact, the presence of a pretty woman, shared disgruntlement (over a delay or a spilled Pepsi), or the shuffle through the doors, which requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations. Train riding has other benefits. Passengers can sleep or read, send e-mails or play cards. Delays are out of their control.

Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman, relying on equations like U=α+ß₁D+ß₂D²+γX+δ₁w+δ₂w²+δ₃log y.) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated.

“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.

“They have to trade off social goods for material goods,” Stutzer said. “This is very difficult for people. They make systematic mistakes. We are very good at predicting whether we’ll like something but not at knowing for how long.” People adapt to a higher living standard but not to social isolation. Frey and Stutzer infer that some people, even when the costs become clear, just lack the will power to change. “People have limited self-control and insufficient energy, inducing some people to not even try to improve their lot,” they write. In this regard, they say, commuting resembles smoking and failing to save money.

Road-building doesn’t much help [reduce congestion]. Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called “induced traffic”: the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get. People find it agreeable to move farther away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still. The lanes fill up.

Having abruptly gone from a lifestyle where I walked 5 minutes to school every day to one where I spend 2 hours a day commuting (whether by train or by bicycle), I can attest that living near work is severely underrated.

11 Responses to “Commuting and Happiness”


  1. 1 SM December 21, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I love taking the train as opposed to driving, because I can go places without having to keep my eyes on the road or watch out for every passing vehicle. And there’s time to read too!

    Taxis make me nauseous, I avoid them like the plague.

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