Mind & Body

7 Ways to Make Your Commute a Little Happier

If you're like most people, your commute to work or school is just the worst. In studies, workers rate their commute as the least enjoyable part of their day and more stressful than going to the dentist. People with a long commute are also more likely to quit their jobs. But unless you can find a fully remote position — which comes with its own share of headaches — you can't really escape that chunk of travel time in the morning and evening. Luckily, there are some science-backed ways to make it a little less stressful, and even turn it into a period of productive, happiness-boosting me-time.

Talk to a Stranger

If this makes you want to immediately scroll to the next tip, stop! You can do this, and you'll probably like it more than you think you will. Don't take our word for it; take it from a 2014 study that found that even though commuters predicted that talking to strangers would be the most unpleasant way to spend their commute, another group that actually did it found it more enjoyable than avoiding conversation or even just commuting as they normally did. Of course, it's important to choose the right stranger: Not everyone wants to talk, so heed aversive body language and headphone-wearing as signs that you should probably find a friendlier face to chat with. Once you do, go for it! Compliment their backpack or remark on the weather. You might strike up a conversation that will make you a little happier once you reach your desk.

Plan Your Day

This might sound like the least pleasant way to spend your travel time, but there's good reason to do it. For a 2016 study, researchers recruited 443 workers with long commutes and sent them all a morning text message. For some of the workers, the text suggested that they engage in "work-related prospection" — that is, think about what they'll do when they get into the office and plan out their schedule. The other groups got texts asking them to think relaxing thoughts or to do both (plan out their day and think relaxing thoughts). Only the employees in that first group assigned to do work-related prospection on its own reported feeling more satisfied with their jobs after two weeks than they had prior.

This work was specific to morning commutes, but you can do the same on your way home and use the time to take stock of what went well, what you can improve upon, and what you have left to do tomorrow. Similar exercises at the end of the night help people get to sleep, so it seems likely that it could work at the end of the workday as well.

Plan Your Weekend — or Beyond

This one sounds a lot easier than planning your day, but it's just as happiness-inducing. This tip comes from a 2010 study published in the delightfully titled journal Applied Research in Quality of Life. Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 vacationers about their happiness before and after their scheduled trip and found out that — no surprise — vacationers were happier than non-vacationers. But here's the twist: this was only true before the trip happened; after the trip, vacationers and non-vacationers had the same level of happiness. The researchers chalked this up to the feelings of anticipation vacationers experience before the big holiday — and that suggests that you might get the same happiness benefits from planning a big Saturday night out with friends while you're commuting during the week.

Count Your Blessings

Try this remix of the end-of-the-day work reflection: Instead of writing down what worked and what didn't, think about everything you're grateful for. That could be as big as having a job you love and a boss who supports you or as small as coffee being a thing that exists. Taking time to notice the things that are worth being happy about can, unsurprisingly, boost your happiness, and research backs this up. For example, a 2003 study had people regularly journal about either the things they were grateful for, the things that irritated them, or the things that simply affected them most, either positively or negatively. By the end of the experiment, those who focused on gratitude were more optimistic and had a better outlook on life.

Write Morning Pages

This one is for commuters who use public transit since writing doesn't work too well if you drive or bike to your destination. Morning pages were conceived in the '90s by author Julia Cameron, and they're ridiculously simple: In the morning, write three pages longhand. About what? About anything. The idea is to get all of those random thoughts buzzing around your head out and onto a page. As Cameron says, "Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included." The idea is that scribbling your silly thoughts on a page helps to clear your mind and improve your focus — and who knows? You might end up writing down the nugget of a brilliant idea.

Work on a Goal

Are you trying to learn Mandarin? Figure out how to knit? Become a master of the spreadsheet? Whatever it is, that chunk of time you spend commuting can be used to get closer to your goal. If you drive or bike, audio is great for learning languages and taking online classes. If you take the bus or train, you can bring along a craft project or sketchbook to build your skills. Not only will this help you reach your goal faster, but it will also make you happier thanks to something called "pre-goal attainment positive affect" — basically, the happy flood of dopamine you get while you're heading toward a goal.

Exercise

No, we're not suggesting you do bicep curls in the car or pull-ups on the bus handrails. We're suggesting you take another form of transportation altogether: that is, bike or walk to work. There is a metric boatload of evidence for the fact that exercise leads to a boost in mood and can even ease symptoms of serious conditions like depression and anxiety. If you can take a detour through a park or nature preserve, even better: Exposure to nature has been shown to reduce stress and cut down on the risk of depression. If you're worried about being sweaty at the office, you can always bring a change of clothes — and anyway, you may find that a little sweat is worth the happiness boost.

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For more happiness tips, check out "When Likes Aren't Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness" by Tim Bono. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer June 7, 2019

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