This column will change your life: Commuter error?

The United States Census periodically issues reports on a category of workers it labels "extreme commuters", which brings to mind images of eccentric Americans paragliding to the office, but which really means, less thrillingly, that they spend three hours or more travelling between work and home. (Presumably there are a few who paraglide to the office, though; one imagines they live on the west coast, work at Google and use the word "dude" a lot.) Extreme commuting is on the rise, and not just in the US: one survey last year found 10% of Britons spending two or more hours a day on the road. This is one of commuting's vicious ironies: if you live somewhere big and spread-out, it'll take you ages to get to work; but if you live somewhere small and crowded, it'll take you ages, too, albeit for different reasons.

Another irony: people commute reluctantly, when they have no choice, because they can't afford to live closer to work – yet if they get rich, they're liable to do it to an even greater degree, presumably because they think living in the countryside, or quasi-countryside, will make them happier. The former kind of commuter won't be remotely surprised to learn that it often doesn't: numerous studies have shown commuting to be among the most misery-inducing of daily activities, highly correlated with stress and social isolation, often far outweighing the benefits.

The Swiss economists Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey call this the "commuter's paradox", though really it's a cognitive mistake: people chronically underestimate the downsides of a long commute, while overestimating the upsides of (say) a bigger house. The average one-hour-each-way commuter, they concluded, would need 40% more pay to declare him or herself as "satisfied" as a non-commuter. As the neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer notes, that's partly because commuting, especially in car traffic, is unpredictable, so we never get used to it. The brain's capacity for adapting to the predictable usually seems like a disadvantage: it explains the "hedonic treadmill", whereby the thrill of a new car, or some other longed-for benefit, soon fades. But it also means that if you must have aggravations, it's best if they're as regular as clockwork. We imagine a long commute will be a slightly tiresome ritual. Instead, it's a fresh challenge every day.

Non-commuters needn't feel smug, though, because freely chosen long commutes are surely an example of a thinking error we all make. You might call it the "best of both worlds" fallacy: faced with opposing choices, we struggle to combine the benefits of each, yet ignore the costs – in time, money and energy – of doing the combining. Commuters do this, but so does your annoying friend who tries to pack three social events into a single evening, spending almost no time at each, and leaving everyone involved mildly irritated. Even the serene-sounding notion of a "balanced life", which we're always being exhorted to attain, often seems to compound the problem: if the very act of balancing work, family, friends, hobbies, relaxation and travel wears you out, perhaps an unbalanced life isn't such a bad idea after all.

Of course, there are those who seem to relish commuting – to appreciate the quiet isolation of the car or the iPod buds, or the sense of transition between work and non-work. But there are people who like death metal, too, and Cherry Coke. It's an odd world.

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