By Ryan McGreal
Published April 15, 2010
Commuting makes us miserable - so miserable, in fact, that it more than offsets the happiness we get from bigger houses in suburban locations that require us to commute. So why do so many people do it?
Jonah Lehrer over at Scienceblogs has a promising answer. First, he documents what economists Brun Frey and Alois Stutzer call "the commuters paradox":
They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the big house in the exurbs will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional hour to work.
Of course, as [David] Brooks notes, that time in traffic is torture, and the big house isn't worth it. According to the calculations of Frey and Stutzer, a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Another study, led by Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger, surveyed nine hundred working women in Texas and found that commuting was, by far, the least pleasurable part of their day.
To understand why people buy into commuting arrangements that make them miserable, Lehrer cites psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University in the Netherlands:
Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute.
"People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad."
What's interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity.
The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: "The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."
Dijksterhuis describes this as a "weighting mistake", in which people considering the alternatives over-state the comparatively rare opportunities to take advantage of a big yard while under-stating the daily aggravation of a long commute.