Keith Kelsen’s Scent Narrative: Survival Strategies for Commuting

Commuting is the worst part of a day.

Drive-time commuting is an evil experience unless you enjoy the feeling of being trapped. Nevertheless, people tend to downplay it, in a phenomenon called “commuter’s bias”.  According to a team of researchers writing in The Harvard Business Review, most people with long commutes feel helpless.  As a result, they arrive at their jobs and homes wiped-out.  This damages both their work performance and mental well-being. However, both science and mental discipline can improve the commute by turning it into a more positive experience.

Let’s admit that commuting is a drag.

In the Harvard Study, researchers checked to see whether participants could calculate exactly how much more they would earn if they chose a job for $3,000 more a year if they added :30 minutes to their commute (an hour per day).  The researchers wrote:

Their responses simply reflected an inability to fully appreciate the psychological, emotional, and physical costs of longer travel times.

For many of us, the time we all spend sitting in traffic is harmful to our well-being and job satisfaction.  Over a 5-year period, researchers analyzed the impact of commuting on more than 26,000 employees. The study issued 2 months ago from the University of the West of England, found that:

 …each extra minute of commuting time reduces both job and leisure time satisfaction — though not overall life satisfaction — and increases strain and worsens mental health for workers.

Commuter health problems lead to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” dilemma.

A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine linked longer commutes with poor cardiovascular and metabolic health. The more time people spent in the car, the more likely they were to be overweight and have high blood pressure.  Additionally, the study linked it with decreased energy, increased stress, and higher illness-related absences. More than no satisfaction, extended commutes are seriously dangerous to a healthy life.

The average American Commute is about :50 Round-trip.

An hour out of every day is spent on average trapped in a car, nationally.  However, when I entered my commute time on this map, ( 37.2267/-121.9736), it came in at the same times as an infamous LA commute!  Of course, a fix is to download Waze, a free groupthink app that alerts you about traffic, accidents and other hazards so that you can choose the best route. Commuters with shorter commutes, especially who walk or bike to work, don’t report the same dissatisfaction.

The time you never get back.

Ultimately, every additional 20 minutes of commuting per day has the same negative effect on job satisfaction as receiving a 19% pay cut. Sitting in zombie-like traffic can make you feel as bad as earning less money.  Yet, according to an article in  Business Insider[1], people will often take on longer commute times for a job that pays more.

This raises interesting questions over whether the additional income associated with longer commutes fully compensates for the negative aspects of the journey to work. Dr. Kiron Chatterjee

The link between your Commute and your life satisfaction

Traffic jams top the list of why commuters experience increased stress. Canada’s University of Waterloo [2] discovered a direct link between commute time and well-being. The findings, published in World Leisure Journal, conclude that people with the longest commutes have the lowest overall satisfaction with life.  People with rigid work hours and lower incomes were particularly impacted by decreased life satisfaction. People with a partner also experienced a greater negative impact due to the stress associated with time away.

The study reported that commute lengths are linked to a sense of time pressure. People who spend the most time on the road experience higher levels of stress because they constantly feel hurried. Many of them spend much of their time being “road worriers“, instead of being “road warriors”.

Making the Most out of Your Commute

Of course, this being the Scent Narrative, we need to explore Scent.  The neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, Alan R. Hirsch, MD, FACP, says:

…inhaling certain scents like jasmine have been found to improve motor reaction time—helping you to hit the brakes faster. A mixture of eucalyptus, camphor and menthol (Vicks VapoRub) has been shown to enhance empathy…And if it feels like the walls of your compact car are caving in, green apple and cucumber (which studies have found reduce anxiety and claustrophobia) could help you maintain your cool.

In general, this is good advice, except there are no controls. The amount you use and how you use it is important. As we know, Scent can numb our noses when too much is administered.  Additionally, you must use extreme caution in how you use your Scent of choice. It can even damage your car.

…spritzing a fragrance all over your car’s interior can discolor the upholstery; instead, spray a scent on a piece of felt, keep it in your glove compartment and pull it out before you hit the road.Jessica Hanson, President of Amorepacific US.

Time to create a transition.

Another key to an enjoyable commute is using the time as an opportunity to create a mental shift between home and work. Instead of getting stressed out about the day ahead or hurrying home, use the captive time to plan your work day and visualize the outcomes you want (just don’t close your eyes!).  Your return trip can be letting go of the days’ stresses and planning relaxation when arriving home. Simply being alone with your thoughts may help you view the commute time as almost leisure time. There is evidence published in Transportation Research reports that supports this “Mental Toughness” works.  Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.  In her best-selling book, she addresses how mentally strong people deal with commuting:

They don’t waste energy on things they can’t control. You won’t hear a mentally strong person complaining over traffic jams. Instead, they focus on what they can control in their lives. They recognize that sometimes, the only thing they can control is their attitude.

Science to the rescue: 21st Century cars designed to decrease stress.

Car designs, perhaps more than in any other market, are changing rapidly and offer the most stress relief.  In a previous Scent Narrative, we discussed the use of scent in automobiles.  “Research has shown that various scents deployed in-car can create driver alertness, focus or even soothe and calm the driver (great in traffic).  Scent can make a huge difference in the driving and riding experience. Drivers demonstrated decreased levels of frustration, anxiety, and fatigue when exposed to pleasant scents.

In general, prolonged driving led to increased anger, fatigue, and physical demand, and decreased vigor. (Scent) administration led to increased ratings of alertness in comparison to the no-odor control condition…Periodic administration over long-term driving may prove beneficial in decreasing highway accidents and fatalities. Dr. Bryan Raudenbush from his study: The Effects of Odor Administration on Driving Performance, Safety, Alertness, and Fatigue

The iPhone AppleCar?

Now, even more innovation is afoot, making cars more like smartphones, extensions of the very human experience. In fact, designers of phones like Apple (iPhone) and Qualcomm Technologies have entered the automobile design business.  The phone metaphor makes sense, designers put in a big touchscreen, like a Tesla, feed it software and eliminate switches, buttons and even gauges. You can use your smartphone for a billion different things, why not your car control?  The age of the “horseless carriage” is being replaced by the age of the “driverless car”.

De-stress with an Autonomous car instead of meditation.

Additionally, reducing driver and passenger stress related to traffic jams have spawned a whole series of innovations.  Most prominent are the autonomous or self-driving cars.  Yet that cure may have new problems, as recent studies have shown adult nausea in autonomous cars.  Studies done internationally by the University of Michigan have shown a massive increase in adult nausea: 33% of the people experienced an uncomfortable state, while 22% of them vomited!  Fortunately, there is a Scent cure for that.

In the race to find solutions to the commute, new products are appearing almost daily.  Cars that talk to each other.  Cars that use Artificial intelligence to think. Cars that may even fly over the traffic in the next 4 years!  Augmented reality dashboards, biometric vehicle access, and cool new entertainment systems all are in the works to make the in-car experience better. Everyone knows that “Time fly’s when you are having fun!”

Expectations of a brave new commute.

The trend is that autonomous cars have arrived.  Automotive designers are already thinking about how such technology will change the interiors of cars.  People will want the trip to go fast, even if the car isn’t.  They will expect something much more than the Spartan interiors of the under $50,000 car of today. Some companies are considering concepts like internal mood lighting or using the windshield as an overlay for additional information. In a recent NYT article, Panasonic said it was spending a “substantial” amount on researching vehicle interiors.

When people are in an autonomous vehicle, their expectations will shift. They will want their personal space to become one of smart mobility, connecting them and relevant information to act upon. -Hakan Kostepen, Panasonic’s Executive Director of Strategy and Innovation  [3]

At ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles — a premier automotive design school whose students have created designs for BMW’s i3 electric car, Tesla’s Model S, Lexus, Acura (the NSX) and many others, students recently conceived of future vehicle interiors whose occupants would no longer need to drive. To fire up their creativity, outside experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (spacecraft have no steering wheel) as well from the olfactory reaction and even animal behavior advised them. Nvidia (designer of iPhone chipsets and now the Holodeck), BMW, and IBM’s Watson A.I. solution all sent a representative to judge the designs.  The results are nothing short of amazing and will be profiled in a future installment of the Scent Narrative.

Remember, “it’s the journey, not the destination”.








[1] Business Insider Apr. 24, 2017 The worst part of your workday probably happens before you even get to the office
[2] Forbes DEC 7, 2014 Amy Morin,  Want to Be Happier? Change Your Commute or Change Your Attitude
[3] New York Times JUNE 15, 2017, ERIC A. TAUB Envisioning the Car of the Future as a Living Room on Wheels


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