Miserable travelling to work? Something of a commute point

This won’t come as a shock to most people, but a study undertaken by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and reported by the Guardian has concluded that commuting makes you “unhappy and anxious.” I’ve been there. As a Londoner, I’ve had to endure many cramped tube journeys with someone’s excessively sweaty armpit quivering a little too close to my face, a mystery hand uncomfortably near my crotch, and another person’s elbow unintentionally jammed into my ribs. All these things do clamber on top of one another to create a truly miserable travelling experience.

The study doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know. It reveals: “commuters have a lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety on average than non-commuters.” The ONS went on to emphasise that “factors such as higher income or better housing may not fully compensate the individual commuter for the negative effects associated with travelling to work.” That old adage, “money can’t buy happiness”, immediately seems all the more apposite.

Does this, however, have any bearing on the life-satisfaction of Lancaster students or staff? I would presume that very few students face a commuting time between and hour and ninety minutes – which is apparently the threshold at which adverse affects peak. Members of university staff who travel in from as far as Manchester may indeed feel a bit more stressed out than their colleagues who live locally, though I suspect many local commuters travel to work by bus, and thus, according to the study, have a lower sense that what they are doing is worthwhile than those who travel by car.

Dr Daniel Newman, from Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute, said: “research has shown civic identity in decline, especially in urban areas where commuting leads to alienating social atomisation.” Newman goes on to categorise these communities as ones in which “neighbours simply pass by one another as they travel back and fore to work,” which would account for the distinguishable lack of spirit in some heavily populated city zones. Clearly, the report reveals more about those working in large cities than others existing in small towns (and yes, I know Lancaster is technically a city). He also points to previous studies which display the effects of commuting on physical health: those travelling long distances are “less likely to take exercise or eat home-cooked meals, and more likely to suffer from insomnia and joint pain.”

With the travelling time from Lancaster probably a paltry 20 to 25 minutes on average – 45 minutes at most – for the majority of staff and students, anxiety, stress and physical dilapidation are unlikely to be of epidemic proportions thanks to commuting. Nevertheless, after a day scurrying around to various lecture theatres and seminar rooms, one can hardly place all the blame on the shoulders of the student/lecturer/tutor if they come home, punch a few holes in the shiny plastic sheeting of a microwave meal, and slump in front of a screen. Working from home – for both students and the self-employed – frees up a whole lump of time, and moreover, doesn’t weigh one down with the fatigue of travel.

It’s not a total misery fair for commuters however, with the Guardian article stating that those “who reported travelling ‘some other way’, which would include cycling to work, had higher satisfaction levels and were less anxious than those who travelled in cars.” Moreover, those with an extremely lengthy commute – three hours or more – tended to display higher satisfaction levels, possibly because they found they could make more use of the time. It may be our addiction to work which, coupled with the commute, blights our happiness. How many times have you travelled home from a day at the University, only to continue working fervidly when you arrive? Compulsion or necessity – the cause of our incessant drive to be “usefully” occupied may be debated, but one can see how it aggravates our anxieties.

What is to be taken from the report, then? Well, work from home. Unfortunately, as students, we’re going to have to go in at some point, so, failing that first option, take work less seriously or get a bike.

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