Commutes set the tone for the day. Even if you wake up to a team of cheerful woodland creatures who will help you bathe and dress, a commute can make or break the mood. A new study finds, however, that commutes can have larger impacts than half an hour of grumpiness; they also likely affect your overall mental health.
Three researchers who tracked more than 17,000 British commuters in surveys over a period of 18 years found that those with active modes of transportation fared better on a scale of well-being. Where an extra 10 minutes of commute time actually increased well-being levels in walkers, an extra 10 minutes of commute time decreased psychological wellness for drivers. When drivers switched to walking or biking, their psychology improved. Riding on public transit was also associated with higher levels of wellness.
The latest study is pretty consistent with other findings that show walking or biking to work is better for your physical health. But it reminds us that commuting has mental health consequences, too. Earlier this year, researchers published a study showing that drivers tend to perceive their environments more negatively than cyclists or pedestrians.
Some of the effects of switching from driving to active travel were so significant, in fact, that they mirrored the effects of other life changes like switching jobs, getting married, or having a baby. Instead of answering “no” to a question like, “Do you enjoy living in your neighborhood?” those who had made the switch started answering “yes.”
“One of the main messages [of the study] is because it’s about travel to work, which everyone does, if only we could persuade a small proportion of them to make that switch, there would be a massive improvement of well-being at a national level,” says lead author and University of East Anglia medical school researcher Adam Martin.
More research is needed, however, on the mechanism that makes drivers so dour. “This view complements existing evidence of a negative association between driving and physical health, and is consistent with the hypothesis that car driving (a non-passive travel mode that requires constant concentration) can give rise to boredom, social isolation, and stress,” the researchers, who published their work in Preventive Medicine, write. “Together, these results appear to suggest that avoiding car driving may be beneficial to well-being.”