I genuinely look forward to my drive to work. The more traffic, the better. I like to arrive feeling calm and relaxed before the chaos hits me. I’m a big believer in your mood affecting the way people respond to you, so I know that if I arrive at work feeling calm, happy and creative, I’m off to a good start.
I’m aware that I’m a little odd in this respect. Driving can bring out the worst in us; for some people it makes us feel competitive if people are driving at the wrong speed in ‘our lane’, or we feel sleighted if someone doesn’t let us pull out at a junction, or worse still, we feel the need to teach others a lesson by intimidating them by being aggressive. But what is it about this that can make the most easy-going person into such an a*se behind the wheel?
A quick guide to why your mind makes you irrational behind the wheel…
Did you know time anxiety is a thing? Daily time anxiety is when you have the feeling that on a day-to-day basis, there’s never enough time to allow you to do all you need to do. Cue the panic. Will you meet that deadline? Are you going to miss the start of a meeting? Do you have a million things you need to get done and you need all the time you can to do it? This all creates a sense of overwhelm and panic while you’re watching the minutes pass by when you’re stuck in your car.
You can’t see me, only my car. Have you heard about deindividuation? This is essentially how we’re likely to act differently if our identity is somehow hidden. While it’s the basis of things like mob-mentality, it also means that in a car, we feel more anonymous; think about it – when you see another car on the road, do you see the colour and type of car, or the driver? In much the same way as how we’re more likely to be aggressive when our faces are hidden (internet trolls… anyone?) being in a car makes us much more likely to be aggressive to other drivers, when in reality if we were face-to-face with that same driver, we’d probably exchange polite apologies and continue with our day.
They’re clearly idiots; I’m just in a rush. Have you ever stopped to consider how you don’t tend to give others the benefit of the doubt? Don’t worry, it’s normal. It’s also an example of the fundamental attribution error. When we’re faced with the jerk actions of another, we think it’s simply because they’re a jerk. When we’re the jerk, it’s only because we’re in a rush, upset about something, or some other temporary and enormously excusable reason. When we’re on the road, if someone does something silly, the first thing we presume is that they’re a bad driver and always will be, but when we drive erratically, we excuse it as a forgivable one-off.
Frustration often leads to aggression. If you’re prevented from getting what you want; i.e. getting where you need to be, when you want to, you experience frustration. This leads to aggression and most likely some manoeuvres we’re less than proud of when we’ve had chance to calm down a bit. This spike in our aggression causes us to have a blinkered view of the big picture, temporarily losing sight of our true selves.
Cognitive biases are always on hand to make us think in irrational ways. Driving is no different. We’re prone to ‘catastrophizing’ when we think the actions of others are more dangerous than they really are, ‘overgeneralisation’ when we presume that all drivers at this time of day or in this city are idiots, or ‘standard violations’ when we feel aggrieved when we believe others have broken our personal rules. All of these create stress and ultimately aggression, whether it comes out in our driving behaviour, or just a quietly muttered naughty word. Talking of cognitive biases and their power to delude us, most people believe that their driving skill is above average; I’ll wait while you do the maths on that one.
So what can you do instead?
Take a mindfulness moment. I like to use stationary traffic on my commute to pause my thoughts and experience the world around me. Even when I’m just stopped by some overgrown greenery, I just stop and look at how beautiful the flowers are and how vivid the colours are. I let some fresh air in to the car and feel the breeze on my face, or bask in the sun as it warms my arms and face through the window. While I’m not going anywhere, I take a sip of my coffee and actually taste it, rather than gulping it down mindlessly. I just stop thinking about moving and just go back to my senses and breathe.
Just let go and embrace the wait. Eckhart Tolle writes about how many of us spend our lives as ‘habitual waiters’. He suggests that if we’re focused on where we need to be rather than where we are, we create inner conflict. When we’re watching the clock on our commute, we’re mindlessly waiting for our destination. As much as you’d like to, you probably can’t get where you need to go any faster, so just stop trying. Let go of the stress and just stop focusing on all of those little things that are annoying you. It’s not worth it.
Waiting is a state of mind… it means that you want the future; you don’t want the present.Eckhart Tolle
So just relax. I’ve already mentioned having a sip of my coffee (while stationary, in a travel cup; don’t be silly please folks), and taking a moment to switch off my mind so that my internal planner actually shuts up. But one of my favourite things to do is to listen to an audiobook. While I love relaxing with a fiction book, I love non-fiction in the car; something psychological or something that will just make me think. When I’ve got a brilliant book on the go, I can’t wait to listen to a little more each day.
Think about what you’re listening to. There’s been a ton of research into the link between music and mood. Studies have shown that music, or specifically, certain types of music can make us feel measurably happier, need less pain relief, concentrate and many other things. In the car, this can be used to help us feel calmer in the face of frustration; which may mean creating a Calm Commute playlist rather than listening to old favourites. In particular, listening to loud music has been found to increase risk-taking while driving in teens, so it’s not something to be dismissed.
So the next time you’re in the car about to leap out the window and strangle the jerk who pulled out in front of you… just stop. Breathe. You can’t control as much as you’d like to. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “just be, and enjoy being”.