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What traffic is doing to your brain (and how to make it better)

Reflexively, I braked hard as a car slipped into my lane at the last minute. The street route to my home is notoriously slow during rush hour and the boulevard narrows from two lanes into one. As soon as I saw the backside of the vehicle creeping in front of me, I almost muttered a few choice words in retaliation.

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But this time, something shifted. I had started practicing mindfulness and saw an opportunity to put it to use. I took a breath—a few actually—and offered up some loving kindness. That was the beginning of many incidences where I practiced generosity by allowing space for cars to merge with me on a regular basis, often sending thoughts of positivity in place of angry reactions. The upsides were exceptional: I felt an overall sense of increased calm and ease despite congested traffic and merging became an often seamless process on the busy streets and freeways of Los Angeles. And I didn’t notice much difference in the time it would take me to arrive at my destination.

Stuck in traffic, stuck in stress

No doubt, commuting can be a stressful endeavor. And in a city like L.A., spending lots of time in your car is inevitable. Everything from picking up take-out dinner a mere two miles away to driving to a few neighborhoods over to attend a meeting can become an aggravating test of patience. It’s perhaps no surprise that a recent study found commuting to be a source of fatigue, impatience, and amongst the least satisfying activities during a given day. If I had been a statistic in this study, I would have ranked household chores (the horror!) preferable to time spent commuting in traffic.

The upside of mindfulness during commutes

Choosing to let cars into my lane and be more considerate to other drivers during my commute has become second nature. But there is a more practical and proven offshoot of incorporating mindfulness into daily driving. We’ve all seen a driver who races along and decides to cut into a lane to merge when the majority of other cars have been traveling slowly, presumably moving as they should towards their destination. A knee-jerk reaction might be to floor the gas pedal, closing the gap between you and the car in front of you in order to avoid adding to your commute time. These last-minute mergers can be a source of disdain amongst fellow drivers. After all, how is it that this person thinks they can move in when everyone else has been waiting to make some headway down a congested road? It may be a surprise to some, but experts have determined this action often helps the overall flow of traffic.

Zipper merge to the rescue

According to several studies by traffic authorities, there are benefits to the pattern of the driver who cuts in. And it turns out, practicing elements of mindfulness can be good form in more ways than one when it comes to a commute. The “zipper merge”, or the movement of cars coming together into one lane in the same way two parts of a zipper would join, which I was inadvertently taking part in, is a process of cars coming together by taking turns to get into a single lane. It might be counterintuitive, but studies show it to be an optimal way to avoid bottleneck and maintain smooth traffic flow. The 2017 study by the Alberta Motor Association (AMA) supports the idea of drivers merging later. According to the AMA, bottlenecks on the road are the biggest factor in creating traffic delays, and the zipper merge can alleviate it. The possibility of reducing traffic congestion is significant—as much as 40 percent, according to the study. While I haven’t practiced using the faster-moving lane only to cut in at the merge point yet, I acknowledge that little acts of generosity and loving kindness not only make my commute better as a whole but make it feel faster, too. Next time you see someone merge into your lane at the last minute, even if sending positive thoughts aren’t quite in your purview yet, pause for a moment, and consider that letting another driver in may contribute to a better traffic flow for everyone.

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