The Psychological Benefits of Commuting to Work

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COMMENTARY | Many people who have been working from home are experiencing a void they can’t quite name.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine’s newsletters.

Back when commuting was a requirement for going to work, I once passed through a subway tunnel so filthy and crowded that the poem inscribed on its ceiling seemed like a cruel joke. “overslept, / so tired. / if late, / get fired. / why bother? / why the pain? / just go home / do it again.” “The Commuter’s Lament,” which adorns a subterranean passage in New York City’s 42nd Street station, made the already grim ritual of getting to and from work positively Dante-esque. But no one questioned the gist of it. The commute, according to the Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s research, ranked as the single most miserable part of our day. A Swiss study held long commutes responsible for “systematically lower subjective well-being.”

And then, during the coronavirus pandemic, something bizarre happened. For many of us, the scourge we’d spent a lifetime bad-mouthing as a tedious time-waster went away. While essential workers have continued to brave the roads and rails—sometimes suffering truly punishing commute times—many others have lived for more than a year in a commute-less world. Some think they’re never going back to the office, while others are receiving “return to work” notices from their employers explaining that, come September, butts will once again need to be in cubicle chairs.

But here’s the strange part. Many people liberated from the commute have experienced a void they can’t quite name. In it, all theaters of life collapse into one. There are no beginnings or endings. The hero’s journey never happens. The threshold goes uncrossed. The sack of Troy blurs with Telemachus’s math homework. And employers—even the ones that have provided the tools for remote work—see cause for alarm. “No commute may be hurting, not helping, remote worker productivity,” a Microsoft report warned last fall. After-hours chats were up 69 percent among users of the company’s messaging platform, and workers were less engaged and more exhausted.

In its pre-pandemic heyday, we very narrowly thought of the commute as doing one job: getting us to and from our place of work. But clearly, the commute was doing something more, something that we failed to appreciate. What was it?

In 1994, an Italian physicist named Cesare Marchetti noted that throughout history, humans have shown a willingness to spend roughly 60 minutes a day in transit. This explains why ancient cities such as Rome never exceeded about three miles in diameter. The steam train, streetcar, subway, and automobile expanded that distance. But transit times stayed the same. The one-way average for an American commute stands at about 27 minutes.

Marchetti’s Constant, as those 60 minutes are known, is usually understood to describe what people will endure, not what they might actually desire. But if you take the richest people of any era—who can afford to design their lives however they like—and calculate the transit time between their home and workplace, what do you find? J. P. Morgan: a roughly 25-minute ride by horse-drawn cab. John D. Rockefeller: an elevated-rail ride of about 30 minutes.

In a 2001 paper, two researchers at UC Davis attempted to divine the ideal commute time. They settled on 16 minutes. To be sure, this was a substantial shortening of the study participants’ actual commutes (which were half an hour, on average). But it was not zero. In fact, a few wished for a longer commute. Asked why, they ticked off their reasons—the feeling of control in one’s own car; the time to plan, to decompress, to make calls, to listen to audiobooks. Clearly, the researchers wrote, the commute had some “positive utility.”

Before the pandemic, researchers had begun to unpack what that utility was. I reached one of them, Jon Jachimowicz of Harvard Business School, who contrasted WeWork and its ill-fated spin-off, WeLive. Pitched in the company’s doomed IPO prospectus, WeLive claimed to offer “everything you need to live, work and play in a single location.” But it never expanded beyond two locations. This could have something to do with the limits of grown-up demand for dorm life. But, Jachimowicz told me, “if everyone hated commuting as much as they say they do, we’d see these WeLive spaces everywhere.”

Gail sheehy wrote about “the commuter’s double life” for New York magazine in 1968, profiling the specific personalities aboard the 5:25, 6:02, and 9:57 out of Grand Central Station. As Sheehy wrote: “You get a very strong feeling of two lives with the train a bridge.” The distance between those two lives is explored in a body of research loosely known as “boundary theory,” and this, perhaps, is where we see the commute’s more important job.

Broadly, boundary theory holds that however much Facebook encourages employees to bring their “authentic selves” to work, we have multiple selves, all of them authentic. Crossing between one role and another isn’t easy; it’s called boundary work. And the commute, as Arizona State University’s Blake Ashforth and two collaborators wrote in a seminal paper on the topic, “is actually a relatively efficient way of simultaneously facilitating a physical and psychological shift between roles.”

Consider the morning drive in. While superficially a matter of on- and off-ramps, it also initiates a sequence in which the feelings and attitudes of home life are deactivated, replaced by thoughts of work. This takes time, and if it doesn’t happen, one role can contaminate the other—what researchers call “role spillover.” “If you respond like a manager at home, you might be sleeping on the couch that night,” Jachimowicz explained. “And if you respond like a parent at work,” it’s weird.

He and his colleagues found that workers who engaged in “role-clarifying prospection” during their morning commute—deliberately thinking about plans for the workday—reported higher levels of satisfaction with both their work and home lives than those who either zoned out or ruminated on personal problems. Skipping this cognitively difficult task left them in limbo, making each place more stressful.

Technology can help. In a 2017 experiment, a team at Microsoft installed a program called SwitchBot on commuters’ phones. Before the start and end of each workday, the bot would pose simple questions. A morning session helped the participants transition into productive work mode, while prompts to detach at day’s end—“How did you feel about work today? Is there anything else you would like to share?”—brought forth something unexpected. “People apparently would just spill out their day,” Shamsi Iqbal, a researcher who helped design the study, told me. In reliving their day, they “relieved themselves” of it (and sent fewer after-hours emails as a result).

Why was this a good thing? Because the ability to detach from a job, Iqbal explained, is part of what makes a good worker. New research shows that it’s crucial to facilitating mental rejuvenation. Without it, burnout rises, effort increases, and productivity ultimately drops.

But all of this research was done before the pandemic, and it was aimed at helping commuters commute better. Now we have to ask: What if the commute never comes back—or at least not every weekday? Can we replace it?

When I gave up my own commute some years ago, I came to a realization. The smell of the café car, the gathering of the shoulder bag, the clack of shoes on the lobby floor—all the sensory cues saying You’re a professional journalist arriving in Manhattan for work would be gone. After a brief period of jubilation, I began to wonder if getting to work was the same as getting to work. A spacecraft approaching a planet too fast can bounce off the atmosphere right back into space, and you can rearrange a lot of desk items and check a lot of sports scores before realizing you’ve spaced out, too.

If I was going to replace my commute, I’d have to get strategic.

I developed a set of tricks. Matching my surroundings with the task at hand seemed important. Deep research was best done in the stacks of a nearby library; writing, in coffee shops. Commuting directly from the desk to the dinner table was a bad idea. A run or stroll outside first. But no strolling in the a.m. Mornings, you walk like you’re late for something. Above all: An underdressed day is an unproductive day. So if a deadline looms, out comes the writing blazer. In office attire, you can’t take out the trash or water the lawn without a strong feeling that you ought to be doing something else. Like your job.

I was pleased to find an entire academic paper called “Enclothed Cognition” that backed me up on this. When people are asked to do a difficult task involving visual concentration, they make about half as many errors if they first put on a white lab coat. (If they’re told it’s a painter’s coat, it helps, but only marginally.) The coat has a symbolic power, the paper says, which “is not realized until one physically wears and thus embodies the clothes.”

How did the rest of my routine hold up? I sought the advice of Ezra Bookman, a corporate-ritual designer (yes, this is a real job) based in Brooklyn. His work includes coming up with ideas like “funerals” for failed projects. “Every single conversation I have with corporate clients is the same,” he told me: “Employees are burnt out and have no separation between home and life.”

Naturally, he has come up with some rituals to replace the commute and mark the beginning and end of each day. The ideas he’s proposed to clients include lighting variations, warm-up stretches, cellphone-free walks, and, as he demonstrated to me over Zoom, shrouding your computer in a fine blue cloth when you log off, as if it, too, needs a good night’s sleep.

“Rituals are friction,” he told me. Like the commute, “they slow us down. They’re so antithetical to most of our life, which is all about efficiency and speed.” One ritual that worked for Bookman was changing his laptop password to “DeepBreath”: “It helps me to locate myself in time and say, ‘Okay, what am I here to do?’ ”

Iqbal, the Microsoft researcher, said that this was the same idea behind a “virtual commute” that her company has just released. An onscreen tap on the shoulder—“Ready to leave for the day?”—signals that it’s time to knock off. The shutdown sequence has you bookmark what you were working on. It invites you to “take a minute to breathe and reset,” in sync, if you like, with a calming meditation video. Because work is done.

All of which is to say: With meditation exercises, costume changes, and chatbots, you too can replicate what the commute did for you. In the meantime, let’s finally spare a kind word for something we’ve spent our lives abusing—for the highways and the subways, for the crowds and the filth, for the bagelwich and the jostled coffee, for the traffic tie-up and the terrible screech in the tunnel. Two optimistic subway vandals did it 10 years ago. Tired of that underground poem’s eternal griping, they briefly replaced why the pain? with much to gain.

This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “Admit It, You Miss Your Commute.”

Jerry Useem is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

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