Q&A: Why Commuting Sucks the Life Out of You

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Last month, a Swedish study made a splash when it found that couples in which one partner commutes a long way to work (more than 45 mins.) are 40% more likely to divorce than couples who don’t have to travel so far for their jobs.

The finding was based on statistical data from just over 2 million Swedish households, though the data didn’t shed light on why commuting was so bad for marriage. However, the results are in line with past studies suggesting that commuting isn’t just harmful for coupledom, but also for overall well-being, contributing to obesity, stress and loneliness. As Slate’s Annie Lowrey so aptly described the daily trudge to work:

Commuting is a migraine-inducing life-suck — a mundane task about as pleasurable as assembling flat-pack furniture or getting your license renewed, and you have to do it every day. If you are commuting, you are not spending quality time with your loved ones. You are not exercising, doing challenging work, having sex, petting your dog, or playing with your kids (or your Wii). You are not doing any of the things that make human beings happy. Instead, you are getting nauseous on a bus, jostled on a train, or cut off in traffic.

Healthland dug a little deeper into all the potential reasons that commuting is such a drain on our health and happiness, by speaking with three experts: Erika Sandow of Umeå University, the author of the Swedish research; Susan Hanson, professor of geography at Clark University, who independently reviewed Sandow’s work; and Richard Wener, a professor of environmental psychology at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

The researchers agree that commuting pretty much sucks, but there are at least a couple of ways to lessen the stress.

TIME: What is it exactly about commuting that causes so much distress?

Sandow: If you have long commuting time, this can cause a time pressure in your daily life. You are away for a longer time during the day, and you spend less time at home with your family. The partner [of a long-distance commuter] often has to shoulder more household work when the other one is away. I guess that can cause conflict and strains in the relationship. But [there’s] also the health aspect: long-distance commuters are found to experience more stress and other negative effects such as higher blood pressure and trouble sleeping. If you find that your personal well-being is affected negatively by long-distance commuting, I do think that this can spillover into your personal life.

(More on TIME.com: Major Triggers of Heart Attack: Alcohol, Coffee — and Sitting in Traffic)

TIME: Are certain types of commuting worse than others?

Wener: There’s increasing data that shows that commuting by car is unhealthy in that it reduces the amount of physical activity you get. The actual amount of exercise one gets from walking is significantly greater when you have a short distance to walk to work, bike to work, or even if you commute by train. You’re many times more likely to get a number of steps that actually count as real exercise than if you’re driving.

TIME: Who is the average long-distance commuter?

Hanson: It’s men more than women who are long-distance commuters. Twenty-nine percent of men versus 19% of women are long-distance commuters in Sweden. Forty-five percent of the men who are long-distance commuters are in the high-income category, whereas only 21% of the women who are long-distance commuters are in the high-income category. [Sandow] finds that, overall, 9% of the 2.1 million people [she studied] were long-distance commuters. Most of them live in metro areas, which is interesting because a lot of people think those who are commuting live in the boondocks.

(More on TIME.com: The 20 Best and Worst Cities for Public Transit)

TIME: What are the implications of the gender differences in commuting patterns?

Hanson: Well, they’re huge. The implications are the reasons for it, and the reasons for it are many. The main reason is that — from work I’ve done with colleagues — whoever is the caregiver in the household, which is more often than not the woman, tends to work closer to home than the other partner. So where there’s an unequal division of labor within the household, with one of the partners spending more time taking care of kids and minding the homefront, that person’s commute is generally shorter.

Sandow: It’s the men who gain the most from long-distance commuting when it comes to the social aspects. It’s not a sustainable development. It’s men who are making their careers, who are getting great jobs from the wide labor market, and women continue to work closer to home and are still doing the main household work. It’s sort of going backwards [in terms of gender equality].

TIME: Is there any upside to the long commute?

Hanson: Some people actually value a long commute. They value a commute driving solo in their car even if it involves being in congestion. Long commutes are often associated with higher income so people are willing to travel farther to a job that is more interesting, is a better match to their skills, and offers more opportunity for advancements. All those things are positive results of a long commute.

The population I would worry about is people who are traveling long distances and for a long time to low-wage, dead-end jobs. Those would be the people who may not have a choice or as much of a choice as people who are earning higher wages.

TIME: Do the effects of commuting diminish over time? That is, do you acclimate?

Hanson: [According to Sandow’s study], couples in which one or both partners had long-distance commutes for more than five years had a separation rate of 11%, which is lower than those who had commuted long distance for less than five years. This may indicate that they’ve learned and adapted to this. On the other hand, it may suggest that the people who can’t live with it have changed their residential or job locations so they’re not long-distance commuting anymore.

(More on TIME.com: How Married Are You?)

TIME: How can couples combat the harms of commuting?

Sandow: I think it’s important that you talk to each other and have a clear division of labor at home, so it works out for both [partners]. I also think that, if you can, use your travel time. For example, if you have the ability to work while you’re commuting, you can make your working days shorter.

Wener: There are some individual things and there are some infrastructural things. Making the infrastructure better is clearly important. One of the things a study I did showed is that when the commute got better and faster, people experienced a positive change, and the women with children at home had the most positive effects.

On the other end, it’s what people can do in terms of how they experience the commute. One of the things people can do to reduce stress is not cut the deadline so close. Leave a little bit earlier so you’re not feeling so pressured if things get late, which all of us say we’ll do, but none of us do.

TIME: What’s next in terms of research on commuting?

Wener: The long-term consequences [of commuting], and how much exposure is too much over how long a period of time.

Sandow: I’d like to interview those who have been commuting for several years and what strategies they’re using to make it work in the long run. I’d also like to interview people who have stopped commuting to learn more about the factors they found too costly, and do some research on whether there are any effects on children growing up with one or both parents long-distance commuting. I think that it’s important to raise the social aspects of long-distance commuting and not only focus on the economic aspects. But there’s [currently] no focus on what the people who commute feel, what they experience and what are the social consequences.