A Practice for the Common Humanity of Being Stuck in Traffic

Just the other day, I was crammed into a crowded train, jostled by other passengers. I immediately felt grouchy and worried about being able to get to the door to get off the train at my stop. I took a few breaths, and thought about how we were all crowding that train, all eager to get to our destinations on time, all sharing these common resources.

We tend to think that everyone else is the crowd or the traffic, that everyone else is getting in our way. But really, we’re all the traffic; we all share the same roads, buses and trains. We share the fears of running late to work, of being annoyed by being bumped or cut off. All of these feelings are universal parts of the frustration that we might face during our commute, making it a great place to practice compassion and integrate mindfulness into a daily habit.

Here are three easy practices to consider to bring a bit more awareness and compassion to your regular commute:

1. Wish People Well

My experience on the train isn’t unique. I try to make it a practice on my morning bus ride to work to take a moment to wish the other riders well for the day and thank them for sharing the bus with me. (I do this silently, in my own mind, just to be clear!) It never fails to lighten my spirits at least a bit. Sometimes I look around and think about wishes for individuals (“May he be happy, may she feel love today, may they appreciate each other today“), and sometimes I wish the whole bus well at once. If the bus is crowded and I feel jostled and annoyed, this practice becomes especially important. Instead of taking this so personally (“why are all of these people on my bus?!”), I remember that we’re in this together, all sharing the same resources, each of us equally deserving.

This isn’t just a sweet notion, a recent study from Iowa State University shows the benefit of this type of loving-kindness practice. Researchers had college students walk around a building for 12 minutes and practice one of the following strategies:

  • Loving-kindness: Thinking to themselves: “I wish for this person to be happy” for each person they saw.
  • Interconnectedness: Considering how they are connected to and share similarities with each person they saw.
  • Downward social comparison: Thinking how they may be better off than each person they encountered.
  • Control Group: Students were instructed to focus on what they saw, such as people’s clothing, colors, textures, makeup and accessories.

 The study found that participants who practiced loving-kindness (or wishing others well) showed “lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy, and higher feelings of caring and connectedness than those in a control condition.” The interconnectedness group only showed benefits around empathy and connection, whereas the downward social comparison showed no benefit compared to the control. Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State and author of the study, described: “Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection. It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”

 2. Assume the Best

If something negative happens — someone cuts us off in traffic, we’re jostled by a fellow commuter, we miss our train— we often assume that we did something wrong or we malign the other person. We often get angry or hurt, taking on more mental anguish than we need to. Instead, why not attempt to assume the best?

Instead of yelling aloud: “Ahhh, what a jerk!” if I’m cut off in traffic, I try to invent a story about why they are in such a hurry. “Maybe they are going to the hospital, it must be urgent!” This makes me feel better, even if it’s not true. I’ll never know the truth about why they cut me off, but assuming the best transforms a frustrating situation that I have no control over into a moment of empathy. It helps me let go of the negative feelings. It’s not just about always making sure to see a silver lining in all situations, when denying the actual rain cloud. More often, it simply involves assuming that the people around us have the best intentions, even when our needs are competing.

3. Be Intentional

Recently, during a busy period at work, I realized that I just needed more time for mental empty space. For a few weeks, I stopped listening to anything or reading during my commute. I just sat and rested. Doing nothing was exactly the right thing to do. This was essential processing time during otherwise busy days. Now that things have slowed down a bit, I’ve been wanting more stimulation, and I’ve gone back to reading and podcasts. 

It’s easy for commute time to be squandered, either zoning out and listening to the radio or scrolling through Twitter, or cursing at traffic. I encourage you to try being intentional about how you use your commute time to be compassionate to yourself. We’re often tired during these times and don’t have a lot of energy to do much, and yet, some of these activities can be more draining. Being intentional about this time means asking yourself what will really be best for you in the moment.

I hope these strategies help you transform your commute into time for yourself and time to feel connected to those around you.  You can also listen to a guided practice to help you try it out, here. 

Our 2-day Search Inside Yourself program provides additional tools and resources to develop more kindness, compassion and empathy at work and in life. Check out our calendar of events and we hope to see you at one of our upcoming programs! 

Steph Stern, SIYLI's Director of Global Expansion