You’re a contestant on an episode of Family Feud. You’re starting the round, facing off against your opponent, your palm hovering tensely above the buzzer. The host presents the next challenge:
“One hundred people surveyed, top five answers on the board … Name something that causes people to feel angry of impatient.”
:: BZZZT! ::
What’d you guess?
I have a strong suspicion as to the Number 1 answer on the board.
Despite the host of major issues happening across the globe at any given time, it seems few things in life routinely get people worked up quite like traffic.
In fact, this is so much the case that I wonder if we’ve conditioned ourselves at this point to start seeing red once the brake lights ahead of us get to glowing.
Likewise, in becoming comfortable with viewing frustration on the road as “normal,” we justify the bad behavior that so frequently accompanies it.
I’ve seen some of the most mild-mannered people I know get Manson eyes (Charles or Marilyn; both apply) in traffic…
…hands flying off the wheel in all sorts of interesting gestures as they [yell / screech / curse] at all the other people who dare use the same roadway and make “me” to have to sit in this @*$#! mess.
Which reminds me of one particular meme I saw recently that made me laugh due to its pithy delivery of the truth:
The central theme of my writing is “You always have a choice.” Yet while traffic itself is one of those things that, in many cases, falls beyond the realm of immediate choice, it does not negate the fact that we do have choices nonetheless — even in gridlock.
Sure, sure. That’s easy to say, I know. But how do you change the reality of things when your blood pressure begins to spike on the highway? How do you start exercising patience that has atrophied due to lack of use?
Today, I’m going to share a few practical ideas with you — things I find myself doing routinely as soon as I realize I’m not going to be getting anywhere fast.
Shift (Your Focus, that is)
I make a bold claim in Chapter 6 of The Best Advice So Far (“Happiness”):
No one can make you mad.
Yep. You may not be able to control the flow of traffic, but you do have control over your attitude and state of mind. I won’t delve too deeply into the root causes of anger here in this post, or how much of what we call anger is based on situation versus biology. What I’m confident of is that, while we may debate the origin of the initial spark, from the second right after that spark forward, we have choices to make. Rolling down the window and flipping the bird is most definitely a choice, as is taking a few slow, intentional breaths. One choice fuels the fire; one throws a blanket on it.
The first step when anger and frustration begin to build is to remind yourself as quickly as possible that you do have choices. Make it a habit. This one simple “reset” really does have the power to change your state of mind.
Maximize the Moment
Here’s another excerpt from Chapter 15 (“Patience”) of The Best Advice So Far :
We’ve gained the world at our fingertips.
And we’ve lost the virtue of patience.
Patience, by definition, is the ability to graciously wait. It stands to reason, then, that if I no longer have to wait, I will no longer have opportunities to build patience. And that leaves me being impatient.
Impatient with stoplights that aren’t turning when I will them to.
Impatient with stepping through the options on the automated help system.
Impatient with learning a new skill or sticking with a new undertaking.
Impatient when others do not get out what they are saying fast enough for my liking.
Impatient with the natural foibles and learning curves of my children.
As patience wanes, other things expand to fill the void. Stress. Irritation. Headaches. High blood pressure. Anger.
With this in mind, try viewing traffic as a valuable opportunity instead of merely a roadblock. It’s referred to as “exercising patience,” right? Why not try thinking of it as a sort of workout, right there in your car — your chance to build patience that will serve you well in every area of life.
Keep in mind that fanning the flames of anger is also a workout, an expenditure of both mental and physical energy. Thing is, for all that effort, it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Traffic doesn’t suddenly break as other drivers flee from your ire. Your car isn’t frightened into spontaneous transmutation to a hovercraft. Put your energies to good use, rather than wasting them on things you cannot change.
I’m not just doling out motivational hype and hokum here. While I’m not known for road rage, I’m also not immune to feeling my teeth clench and my lungs get tight when there’s nothing but a stagnant see of bumpers in front of me. And so I know that I have the potential within me for that to escalate. But I really do remind myself that I always have a choice and that “patience is a virtue” as soon as I’m aware that negative feelings and reactions are on the rise. So I’m telling you from years of first-hand experience — it works.
Put Things in Perspective
One of my favorite strategies when less-than-snazzy stuff happens is to immediately ask myself a simple question: “Will this matter in a year?” So where traffic is concerned, this would sound something like, “Am I still going to care about this particular traffic jam a year from now?”
If the answer is an honest “No,” then I know I get over it at some point in the future. And if I’m just going to get over it anyway, I might as well make the choice to get over it right now, because any time between now and the eventual “over it” moment … is just time wasted.
If you can grab onto the logic of this and put it into regular practice, it’s pure gold.
Remember the People
It occurs to me that getting angry in traffic is often an indicator that we’ve forgotten to treat people as people and not as props, background noise, obstacles in our way or means to an end.
It’s easy to see traffic as vehicles — or at best, robots driving vehicles — rather than as people just like you, driving their own cars with places to go and people to see, many of them likely as frustrated as you are.
Often, when I’m in traffic, I look at the people in nearby cars and try to imagine stories for them. Where are they coming from? Where are they going? Who is waiting for them (if anyone)? Are they fretful that they’ll miss their flight? Late for a funeral? Hoping to see their kids before they’re asleep? Trying to get to the hospital to see a friend before visiting hours end? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ve discovered that there’s a certain magical power in imagining the best instead of the worst.
Believe it or not, you can even go beyond making up stories to creating them, being part of them.
Thanks to hands-free technology, I can use time stuck in a traffic jam to send encouraging texts to kids I mentor, or to catch up on returning calls to friends and family.
I also find ways of positively interacting with the other people right there in traffic around me. For instance, you’d be surprised how many scowls turn to smiles when people look over and see me looking back at them wearing the bright red CNC clown nose I keep in my backpack. In one of the pockets, I also have a pack of note cards and a marker; holding one up to my window has turned many a frown upside down.
I fully realize that not everyone is cut out for this kind of engagement, nor should they be. I’m merely trying to show that introducing humanity to a situation encourages empathy. And empathy has a way of diffusing me-centered irritation. (And in the case of traffic, it also helps remarkably well in making the time seem to go by more quickly.)
Play a Game
Singing “The Wheels on the Bus” or the full version of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” might have officially reached their retirement date. And it’s not much fun playing “License Plates” when you’re stuck in your own state and going no more than 2 mph. But there are still plenty of boredom-busting games I play to keep things positive when traffic is at a standstill. I’ll share just a few that I believe anyone can do quite easily if they have a mind to.
How Many Songs
A standard radio song is about three-and-a-half minutes long. Make a bet with yourself about how many full songs will play before you reach your turnoff, or pass a certain exit, or get 5 miles according to your odometer. This is not only fun, it can have a reverse-psychology effect where you actually want one more song to play before you get to the checkpoint, just so you can win.
Make a list of three fairly common words, then listen to a talk radio station, tuning your ear to “find” all three words before a certain checkpoint (see above). Or choose one really common word (like “the” or “so” or “like”) and set a number of times (25? 50?) to “find” it being said on the station before the checkpoint.
This is a new one to me, one I just made up a few weeks ago. Create a cohesive story (real or fictional) from the letters and numbers on the plate in front of you. For instance:
When I saw this one, I came up with this story: “My mom is 73. It has been 1 Year Since she was 72.”
My story: “In 1979, my grandmother (who is 93) was 54 (older than I am now!), and I’ve seen many Black-and-White photos of her from those early days (even though they had color film by then).
It doesn’t really matter what you see in the numbers and letters. The sky is the limit. This one passes the time, strengthens creativity, and often brings positive thoughts and realizations about things you’d not have considered otherwise.
Audiobooks (and audio language lessons) are surefire ways to make any commute seem to whiz by, and if chosen wisely, are time well spent. If you need a suggestion for your next listen (or your first), I’ve got just the thing:
I hope you found today’s post not just entertaining or even thought provoking, but rather that it provides some meaningful maneuvers for avoiding aggravation the next time you’re trapped in traffic. So before you lay on that horn, try taking these strategies for a spin. If you do, I believe you’ll find patience coming along for the ride more and more often.