Ditching your commute: worth ~$40K/year in happiness

It's not the office making you unhappy, it's your long commute ...research shows it, and it's been true long before the pandemic

I stumbled upon a report from the Scandinavian Journal of Economics titled: Stress that doesn’t pay: the commuting paradox. The abstract of the report was, as follows:

People spend a lot of time commuting and often find it a burden. According to standard economics, the burden of commuting is chosen when compensated either on the labor or on the housing market so that individuals’ utility is equalized. However, in a direct test of this strong notion of equilibrium with panel data, we find that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being. This result is robust with regard to a number of alternative explanations. We mention several possibilities of an extended model of human behavior able to explain this “commuting paradox”.

In 2010 when I left Minneapolis to move to San Francisco, I went car-free and noted that even after a short time period I found the experience completely transformative in a positive way. As positive if not more so than canceling cable TV or getting better and more consistent exercise.

Since then, I’ve Tweeted many pieces of research indicating how your long commute is causing unhappiness in a way you will unfortunately never normalize against. A Gallop Poll on commuting puts it well:

Among employees who take more than 90 minutes getting from home to work, 40% experienced worry for much of the previous day — significantly higher than the 28% among those with negligible commutes of 10 minutes or less. Conversely, workers with extremely long commutes were less likely to have experienced enjoyment for much of the previous day or to say they felt well-rested that day.

This is best summarized with a simple graph from my internet friend Neal Mueller:

A bad commute reduces happiness regardless of how long we’re exposed to it. Even loss of a limb or winning the lottery doesn’t create a permanent and sizable shift in happiness, but a bad commute does. This is the same commuting paradox described in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics linked above.

More research from National Geographic fellow and author of Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way Dan Buettner adds further color. In an interview with NPR, Buettner says:

On why your commute may be making you less happy

“When you look at Americans’ day-to-day activity … the top two things we hate the most on a day-to-day basis is, No. 1: housework and No. 2: the daily commute in our cars. In fact, if you can cut an hourlong commute each way out of your life, it’s the [happiness] equivalent of making up an extra $40,000 a year if you’re at the $50- to $60,000 level. Huge … [So] it’s an easy way for us to get happier. Move closer to your place of work.

So not only will a commute consistently make you unhappy, but we have a reasonable metric, around 40K a year in dollars (which if you’re making 60K is a 66% increase in monetary happiness). As someone who has done this the 40K feels about right, if an underbid.

I was curious how much time I personally saved when moving to San Francisco, so ran the numbers and determined I gained +3.1% of my day back M-F. Doesn’t sound like much? This equals +195.75 hours (+8.1 days) per year of driving time I’m getting back for my life. With the logic that time is the most valuable resource you have, ask yourself: is 8.1 days of your life per year not stuck in traffic worth $40K? I think so. Perhaps far, far more. It’s like a whole week to live you are losing right now (pending commute length).

Of course, in San Francisco I had swapped my driving commute for a walking commute, but swapping traffic for exercise is a huge win and great reason to live in a city. Now that I’m in Austin and doing the full remote thing (like many others in the pandemic) I simply have more productive hours in the day (and still do that walk, just in nature instead of through the city).

This also doesn’t mention, I was saving thousands of dollars a year using my bike, public / shared transit, Uber and Zipcar which are all small infrequent expenses in comparison consistent, regular car payments, gas, insurance, parking, etc.

My expenses while living in San Francisco without a car worked out about like this, if you’re curious how it works out being car-free in a city:

  • Bike: $1500 (so that’s averaged out now to costing me $25/mo for a really nice bike)

  • Zipcar: as-needed (likely I spend $300 in total / year here if that, purely for weekend trips, so let’s call it $25 / month)

  • Bus / light rail: between $0 – $20 / month (I almost never use this because I love walking, have a bike and SF isn’t that big)

  • Uber: between $0-$100 / month (on occasions I don’t want to walk or bike home at night)

  • Walking: free & healthy! (San Francisco is very walkable and I try and use this as most frequent option)

Everyone is spending too much on transportation, and removing the daily commute greatly reduces this, allowing you to allocate resources to other more productive things.

Some more data besides my personal experiences: you could afford a house priced 15K more for each mile you move closer to work, the well being and health of those with longer commutes is worse and those who work remotely wouldn’t give it up for more money.

So if you’re still driving to work every day, or planning to again after the pandemic it’s worth it in so many ways to find a way to not be forced to do this, or at least minimize it (say, work from home a few days a week or at least take public transit so you can make positive use of the time). I think it’s a huge reason millennials were continuing to choose to live in cities, at least pre-pandemic. Post pandemic we’ve seen a migration away, and without the overhang of requiring a long commute due to remote work this became a much easier decision.

You are losing to time second-by-second, why do so stuck in a pollution-filled, congested mess? Reclaim that time for greater happiness, productivity and the important things in life. Moving closer to your office or working out a flex schedule with part time remote part time physically present should greatly improve your life.