As a someone who works from home, my commute consists of puttering from my bed to my desk, stopping only to pour a cup of coffee and change from pajamas into something pajama-adjacent.
My routine may not be great for my step goal—or my fashion sense—but I’m relieved that the days of long drives, traffic, and train delays are behind me. In my past life as a person who had to put on real pants to go to work, most of my commutes left me frazzled and stressed by the time I got to the office.
Sound familiar? Research shows that commuting is a top job stressor for Americans, on par with low pay, and it turns out that the effects last long after you’re back home. Just one hour of commuting time is associated with less time spent with our families and friends; political scientist Robert Putnam even goes as far as saying that every 10 minutes of commuting results in 10 percent fewer social connections. The strain on our relationships is serious: married couples who have long commutes are even more likely to separate. Our physical health suffers too. Those with long commutes are more likely to report neck or back pain, more likely to have a high BMI and high cholesterol, and less likely to report feeling well-rested. They’re also more likely to eat fast food and opt for low-intensity exercise activities. So if you feel like your commute is the bane of your existence, well, you might be right.
Although the research validates my former commute misery, I didn’t know back then that I could’ve done something about it besides muttering under my breath the whole way—and that simple adjustments and mindfulness exercises could’ve helped. Here’s what you can do to get where you’re going, happier and healthier:
Always be prepared
Have a meditation exercise ready to go for stressful moments during bus or train commutes, so it’s waiting for you when a fellow passenger starts clipping their fingernails or flossing beside you. [Editor’s Note: I’d recommend the Commuting Single, though if someone is clipping their toenails, maybe go straight for the SOS session.] And while you shouldn’t meditate behind the wheel, a meditation session before you get out the door may get you in a better state of mind too, says Katie Krimer, LMSW, a social worker at Union Square Practice. “By slowing down and cultivating mindfulness before we get out there, we’ll be less likely to be as reactive to any potential triggers associated with the commute.” If you prefer another audio experience, choose your commute entertainment wisely: “Take time to plan ahead and download a podcast, audiobook, or music that you enjoy,” says therapist Justine Mastin, founder of YogaQuest and owner of Blue Box Counseling. “Flipping radio channels, or suddenly hearing news stories that might upset you can increase feelings of stress.”
“Despite being a regular meditator and running a student mindfulness/meditation group on campus, when I first started commuting, there were mornings on the road that left me rattled before the work day even had begun,” says Michele Patestides, a learning specialist and academic advisor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. But when she started carpooling, she found that her time in the car was more peaceful—especially when she was in the passenger seat. “[I] would let my colleague know that I was going to close my eyes and meditate … during most of the drive,” Patestides says. “Soon, she started doing the same on the days that I drove and we both relished and respected our quiet … time in the car.”
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Shake things up
“You know that experience where you arrive at your destination (work or home) and think, ‘how did I get here?’” asks Fara Tucker, LCSW. That’s autopilot at work, she says—the opposite of mindfulness. Vary your route to bring yourself back to the moment. “While you might not want to do this every day, from time to time, mix up your routine,” recommends Lynn Rossy, Ph.D., director of integrated wellness at Veterans United Home Loans and founder of the Mindfulness Practice Center at the University of Missouri. “Take a different road, park in a different place, or go [through] a different door. While you’re at it, pay close attention to what you can discover that’s new—new buildings, new businesses, new parks, new people.” If you’re a driver or a public transportation commuter, adding some time outdoors can be hugely beneficial. Research shows that walking outside improves creativity, boosts memory and attention, and encourages your brain to enter a meditative state.
Feeling grateful for the guy who just sneezed directly onto the subway pole is a stretch, but practicing gratitude goes a long way in improving your commute, reducing aggression, and increasing empathy. “See if you can identify all the ways you can be grateful in your commuting experience,” says Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C. If you need something to get started, she recommends ”I am grateful to have a job. I am grateful to have transportation. I am grateful to have fuel for my transportation. I am grateful to have coffee. I am grateful it is hot. I am grateful it is not too hot. I am grateful for music.”
And if you’re just grateful your commute is over? That’s a start. Keep incorporating these techniques and you’ll get a little closer every day to appreciating the journey, not just the destination.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.