It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.” (The New Yorker, “There and Back Again,” 4/16/2007)
For the last three weeks, I worked a temp gig that involved an hour and fifteen minute commute both ways. Two and a half hours in the car meant a lot of solo time. It’s pretty lonely business. (Many thanks to Ira Glass for keeping me company during the rides! Mr. Glass and his This American Life gang made the trafficky drive almost enjoyable.)
I wasn’t surprised to find research that supported the idea that commuting is isolating. I was, however, suprised at how extreme that research is. Ten percent fewer social connections for every ten minutes is no joke. This research comes from Robert Putnam, Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, “about the disintegration of American civic life.”
I can’t imagine the commute had that kind of effect on me, because I only did it for three weeks. But I have plenty of friends with a long daily drive who’ve been at it for seven years. The funny thing is that the two people I can think of off the bat who have super-long commutes are actually two of the people I know with the most friends ever. They are super social. Either they defy statistics, or they would really be the most social people I’ve ever met if they didn’t commute.
Plenty of people enjoy having some commute time — you can read, talk on the phone, listen to music, have a minute of alone time before the chaos of the day begins. For that, I think public transportation is probably better than driving, though the article says some drivers love the freedom to come and go as they please, rather than relying on a train or bus schedule. But still, says The New Yorker, “the driver’s seat is a lonely place. People tend to behave in their cars as though they are alone in a room. Road rage is one symptom of this; on the street or on the train, people don’t generally walk around calling each other assholes. Howard Stern is another; you can listen to lewd evocations without feeling as though you were pushing the bounds of the social contract. You could drive to work without your pants on, and no one would know.”
There is something very alone-seeming about being in the car. People can see you, of course, but it still seems so private. A blessing and a curse. For me, for those three weeks, it didn’t just make me feel alone because I spent 2.5 hours in the car. It was also that by the time I got home at night, it was late, I was pooped, and I had less energy to go out. Thus taking away even more time I would normally spend with pals.
For those of you with long commutes, I highly recommend this read. It’s got some extremely interesting info. And in the meantime, chime in. Does your commute make you lonely? Do you think you’d have more friends if you spent less time hauling yourself to and from work?