Want to Be Happier? Try Walking Even Part of the Way to Work

New research concludes that an active commute may be as important to well-being as marriage or a pay raise.

Image Shutterstock/Denys Prykhodov
Shutterstock/Denys Prykhodov

Our daily commutes to work can significantly influence our mental state. Taking public transportation may be more beneficial than driving, researchers find. But ultimately an active commute—especially walking or bicycling—is the most beneficial for our emotional well-being, according to an expansive new study on the topic.

“Our study shows that the longer people spend commuting in cars, the worse their psychological well-being,” says Adam Martin from the University of East Anglia. The study, just published in the journal Preventative Medicine, concludes that commuters with “active travel modes” are associated with higher rates of well-being than those who drive or use public transportation. Over an 18-year span, 18,000 British commuters were asked a number of questions to gauge their various levels of “well-being.” The questions ranged from, Have you been feeling unhappy and depressed? to Have you been able to enjoy your day-to-day activities?  Responses were then correlated with the type of transportation used to arrive at work. The findings offer additional evidence that active commuters are thought to be happier, more focused workers.

Simply adding ten minutes of walking time to your commute, the study concludes, is associated with a boost in well-being. Importantly, the scientific definition of "well-being" is influenced by work-related traits like problem solving and completing tasks. Therefore, the researchers believe improved well-being also correlates to a more productive worker. The psychological benefits of an active commute appear so significant that driving should be a last resort. Even if you can drive to work in 10 minutes, the study suggests, an hour-long walk may be better for your well-being.

“We conclude that the potential benefits available to car drivers if they switched to active travel, and walking in particular, exceed any potential benefits associated with reducing commuting time,” write the team of researchers.

These findings contrast with previous research in the field of commuter happiness. A study conducted by the UK government earlier this year found that shorter commutes—of any mode—were generally better for British citizens. “Life satisfaction … and happiness all decreased with each successive minute of travel,” the government report finds. Moreover, those who walked or rode a bicycle between 16 and 30 minutes each day to work were associated with lower life satisfaction (though active commutes over 30 minutes were not found to have a negative effect on personal well-being).

Martin, lead author of the new research, notes that his work focuses on commuters who switched modes of travel, possibly explaining the divergent results. A person who has consistently driven to work may very well maintain a higher level of well-being than someone who has consistently walked. But when suddenly that driver decided to start walking to work, they tended to experience a significant boost in morale.

Obviously commuting plays just a small part in overall well-being. Family support, income, friendship, neighborhood comfort, among other things, are all believed to influence our happiness. Nonetheless, the psychological benefits of an active commute to work held constant in this latest research, regardless of socio-economic status. Even though some study participants became wealthier or got married, for example, they didn't become impervious to the benefits of walking to work. Whether single, married, poor or rich, driving to work was associated with a comparatively unhappy worker.

“What’s unique with this study is that it looks at the same people over time,” Adam Martin says. “A more active commute to work can be associated with the same psychological benefits as things like a raise in income or starting a new relationship,” he says.

The day you get married; your first child’s birth; when you finally receive your dream job. These are all big moments that can make life feel better than ever. It may be time to add switching to a more active commute to this list of major milestones. If the findings from this newest study hold true, a brisk walk to work could be equally good for our well-being.

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