I am all for diversity and nontraditional lifestyles, but what’s with that small percentage of the population who, according to numerous surveys, say their commute is the best part of their day? That’s just wrong. Everyone knows commuting is hell. It’s depressing; it damages your health; it’s associated with higher divorce rates – and the longer the commute, the more acute the effects. Even worse, because traffic jams and train delays are so unpredictable, it’s a form of suffering to which people never fully adjust. That’s one reason you shouldn’t trade your short commute for a nicer house a longer distance from the office: the fixed pleasures of the new house will fade, while the variable torture of the daily schlep never will.
So who are the 16% of Canadians – to pick one representative study, highlighted recently in The Atlantic – who say they greatly enjoy commuting, or the 3% who appreciate it more than anything else? Cyclists, mainly. But a study out this yearsuggests another factor: people with higher levels of self-control enjoy commuting more, Harvard researchers found, because they use it for “prospection”, or mentally planning the day ahead, while those with lower self-control try to focus on fun, by listening to music or playing Candy Crush. In another part of the study, participants who were actively encouraged to engage in prospection were happier commuters, too. In short: you’re better off embracing the fact that you’re heading into the office, and preparing accordingly, than trying to prolong the feeling of not yet being at work.
This draws attention to something intriguing about unpleasant situations in general, not only those involving close proximity to other people’s armpits on the train: often, it’s more stressful to try to zone out from them than to accept them for what they are. This first struck me forcefully when I started running without headphones. True, listening to music or podcasts did distract me from the discomforts of physical exertion, but it also served as a constant subliminal reinforcement of the notion that exertion was something unpleasant from which I needed distracting.
With the earbuds off, there’s at least a chance that I’ll actually enjoy the running.Research suggests even intense physical pain can be reduced through paying mindful attention to it; by contrast, mental gymnastics to distract yourself from the situation you’re in never definitively works – because you are, despite all your inner efforts, in that situation.
“Let reality be reality,” said the ancient Chinese sage Lao-Tzu, who admittedly didn’t have to deal with a gruelling commute, not least because he may never have existed. All the same, he’s right: “acceptance” needn’t mean resigning yourself to fate; but it does mean stopping pretending things aren’t how they are. You’re on a late-running, scandalously overcrowded train, and you hate it. So quit your job! Or don’t quit your job. But don’t imagine that half-quitting it – quitting on the inside, but not the outside – will help. The external world is annoyingly stubborn like that.