So why do individuals subject themselves and their families to this torture? There are three main reasons: a more interesting or better-paying job, the ability to own a home or live in a desirable area, and family priorities such as a better school or proximity to a partner's workplace.
Unfortunately, say Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, the benefits people expect are often unrealized or outweighed by the downsides. The two economists drew that conclusion from their study of several thousand German households that were surveyed annually from 1985 to 1998.
Physical symptoms range from headaches to high blood pressure. Mental ills include sleep disturbances and poor concentration.
Frey and Stutzer calculated total personal satisfaction values for each individual by tabbing up the "profits" against the "debits" of the disadvantages. They concluded that for every minute longer a worker spends getting to work he will be less satisfied with his life. In a 2004 report the two researchers calculated that Germans who commuted two hours a day were so much more dissatisfied than those with the average commute of 40 minutes that it would take a 40 percent raise in pay to make up for the disgruntledness.
Why Do It?
Experts such as Frey and Stutzer say many workers who commit to a longer commute probably underestimate the human costs. And once the routine is under way, people quickly become accustomed to the greater income or the pretty house in the suburbs. It takes longer for the unpleasant aspects of the grind to set in, yet the physical and mental health effects become stronger and stronger over time.
The degree of dissatisfaction may vary among commuters, however. Schneider found that workers who freely chose to make long trips were better off than those who felt forced into doing so, say, to resolve unemployment.
Other individuals misjudge the strength of their self-determination, according to Haefner. When they first begin commuting, they think, "I'll put up with this for two or three years, and then I'll reconsider things." But the force of habit, chronic shortage of time and lack of energy all thwart the victims from seeking a better solution later. Schneider adds that "long-distance commuters often simply cannot imagine any alternative to the status quo. They do not even think of changing jobs or moving, no matter how much they suffer from the daily ordeal."
Choosing a job closer to home or moving home closer to work are the obvious solutions. If that is not possible, workers can at least explore ways to reduce the human cost of commuting. Carpooling can lighten long drives. Buses or trains can be less taxing if a single, longer route is taken rather than a shorter one that involves transfers, which raises the risk of anxiety-inducing delays and missed connections. People who can sleep for a few minutes on a train often endure commuting life more easily. For nonsleepers, a good book can help; Haefner discovered that train riders who read suffer less than others who fret or do nothing to pass the time. Drivers, of course, should opt for audio books instead.
This article was originally published with the title Commuting Takes Its Toll.