The Ideal Work Commute Will Make You Happier and Healthier

09/11/2017 01:43 pm ET
Dan Gold / Unsplash

Ever wonder about the ideal commute time to work?

I spend about 6 hours in the car each week commuting to and from work (35–40 minutes each way, 5 days a week), so this question is top of mind for me.

The idea of spending that much time commuting is troubling, especially since I pride myself on time management.

But clearly I’m not alone — According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spend more than 100 hours per year commuting to work, which is more than the two weeks of vacation (80 hours) that most workers take annually.

People have an average one-way drive time of about 25.5 minutes in the U.S., and more than 600,000 American workers have ‘megacommutes’ of at least 90 minutes.

Just think about all of the unpaid hours workers are spending getting to and from their workplace (not to mention the generally unproductive use of that time).

To make matters worse, research has shown that there is a direct link between commute time and well-being — People with the longest commutes have the lowest overall satisfaction with life.

This is because long commutes make us feel starved for time, with stress levels spiking as we sit in traffic and worry about the activities we’re missing. It isn’t surprising to learn that long commutes are linked with increased blood pressure.

Clearly Americans (myself included) spend too much time commuting, and it is negatively impacting our health and happiness.

So that begs the question, “What is the ideal commute time to work?”

Do the 4.3 percent of people who work from home have it right, since they have no commute at all?

People do want some separation between work and home — a time to think and decompress from the day.

A large study of more than 1000 workers in San Francisco found that their ideal one-way commute was actually 16 minutes (less than 2 percent of people wanted a commute time of shorter than 4 minutes, and only 1.2 percent wanted no commute time at all). This is consistent with other studies that show most people do not want a commute time of shorter than 15 minutes. I agree that around 15 minutes would be ideal.

But how you commute seems to matter just as much as the length of time.

The research clearly shows that people are happiest walking to work.

Taking the commuter rail or cycling are also better options than driving, in terms of commuter satisfaction.

Driving is by far the most stressful way to commute, but unfortunately also the most common. People who take public transit (5.2%), walk (2.8%), or bike to work (0.6%) still make up a very small percentage of total workers.

More people should choose one of these ‘active’ modes of commuting to increase health and happiness.

Boiling it all down, the very best commute you can have is a 15-minute walk each way.

Even if that isn’t possible for everyone, we would all be wise to live closer to work and build in some physical activity along the way.

Andrew Merle writes about living well, including good habits for happiness, health, productivity, and success. Subscribe to his e-mail list at andrewmerle.com and connect with him on Twitter.

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