• Long traffic lights trigger angst, frustration and impatience
  • Use the idle time at red lights for mental self-care & happiness
  • Flip your mindset and see red light sessions as micro therapy 
It’s the one traffic light on your commute that you know has a really long red light. You know the one. If there was a Starbucks at that corner, you could hop out of your car, order and get your drink in time before it turns green.

Every time you approach this intersection and the light is turning yellow, you do your best to gun it and get through this intersection.


Because if you don’t, you’ll be sitting at the light for what seems like an eternity before continuing on your way. It easily saves five minutes in the morning on the way in if you can get through it.

It’s the same deal on the way home. The same long light.

In fact, there’s probably been more than a few occasions where you dozed off while waiting for the light to turn green, only to be startled awake by the car behind you honking their horn.

Getting stuck at this light is like agony, “Why is this red light so damn long?”

It’s like there’s a mischievous traffic gremlin hiding somewhere nearby, controlling the signal switchboard and messing with you.

There’s always at least one of these traffic lights on your commuting route where you know it’ll aggravate the shit out of you.

Instead of seeing these as unavoidable irritating parts of your day, it’s time to flip it around and turn it into something that can help ease the stresses of commuting.

The Psychology Of Red Lights & Why They Piss Us Off So Much

driver commuting traffic
Humans are finicky beings with little in the way of patience, especially in today’s world of go, go, go. Everyone has got “places to go and things to do” dammit!

About the only population of drivers that don’t fall into this category are retirees. They don’t need to be anywhere in particular or on time. Thus, they’re one of the most irritating things on the road besides red lights.

It’s this combination of a rushed lifestyle, full-plate personal agendas and lack of patience that leads to anger and frustration at red lights.

Sometimes, it can seem like the traffic lights know that we’re in a rush and just fuck with us anyway by turning red just as we’re approaching. Every. Damn. Intersection.

Then, we end up having to drive like a race car driver weaving instead of staying in our lanes to make up the time.

What makes things infuriating is that traffic lights haven’t kept up with modern times.

If you look around today, there are “progress bars” everywhere.

You see your current status in real-time, whether it’s downloading a file, tracking an Amazon shipment, navigation routing, etc. You know your current situation and how much is left to go.

In some parts of the world, traffic lights actually have countdown timers so drivers know how much time is left - genius!

Well, traffic lights don’t work like that here in the US. They keep us all guessing as to when it’ll turn green. It’s frustrating AF.

VIDEO: Why don't traffic lights have countdown timers?
YOUTUBE: The Outline
LENGTH: 3:14
Summary points:
  • Humans are impatient as hell
  • Adding countdown timers to traffic lights would be awesome
  • When we know how much time is left, we’re less anxious and can relax a bit
This lack of real-time status and progress indications keep us in the dark as to when we can start moving again. And, not knowing when we can move is what drives us crazy.

Our only work-around solution is to spot the crosswalk signal for pedestrians. And if you’re lucky, it’ll have a countdown timer. Otherwise, we’ve gotta wait to see the blinking “do not walk” icon.

It’s for these reasons why long red traffic lights piss us all off so much.

Use Traffic Lights For Micro-Meditations & Feel-Good Therapy

What the hell did people do at red lights before smartphones, huh?

If you take a look around at any typical intersection and spot the other drivers waiting, you can bank on the fact that most are on their phones scrolling. We’re guilty of it too.

Yes, there may be a few karaoke singers and zoned-out zombies, but the majority will be checking the latest tweets, Instagrams, texts, etc. These are called micro-moments and because of our insatiable appetite for information or entertainment, we often resort to our phones for a quick hit of online dopamine.

Here’s our proposal: instead of aimlessly scrolling social media, try doing some red light meditations and/or some self-care therapy. Both will help ease your commuting stress.

All of these red light mini-therapies can be done within the duration of a typical red light and with your eyes open and mind aware.

1) Slow Breathing & Counting

One of the most simple things you can do at a red light is to just mentally clear your head and do some slow breathing. It’s a way for your mind to relax and let go from the task of driving and from the day’s bullshit for just a minute.

It’s all about slow breathing and focusing your attention on the sensations of the air flowing in and out of your nose. It’s a breathing meditation. And, it’s one of the most fundamental methods for meditating at work that you can apply during your commute.

Slowly inhale to a count of 5 to 8 seconds, pause, then exhale with a countdown of the same amount. Repeat this until the light turns green.

2) Box Pattern Breathing

This is a slight variation to the simple breathing option above.

Instead of a short pause between the inhale and exhale, with box breathing you want to hold your breath for a few seconds longer before exhaling.

For example:
  • Slowly inhale and count up to 5 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 5 seconds
  • Slowly exhale and count down from 5 to zero
  • Hold your empty lungs for 5 seconds
  • Repeat
This creates a “box pattern” for your breathing. It’s a nice little variation for meditating in your car.

3) Outloud Gratitude 

It’s been proven over and over again that expressing gratitude for things in your life positively impacts your mood and well-being.

This University of Illinois study shows that those who express gratitude have a positive correlation to better overall health. And, it doesn’t just improve your health, it also makes you feel like a better person.

When you openly and honestly say or write down things that you’re grateful for, your body releases all sorts of feel-good hormones, reduces cortisol levels, slows down heart rate, lowers blood pressure, etc.

It’s like giving yourself a big cuddly hug of goodness. It’s also a simple little trick to trigger some happiness at work too.

So, instead of grumbling about how long the red light is or superficially swiping on your phone, it’s time to turn off your radio, put away the phone and say three things that you’re thankful for.

“I’m grateful for __________”
“I’m grateful for __________”
“I’m grateful for __________”

And say it out loud. Don’t just think about it. When you vocalize your thoughts, it has much more impact. You’re not only thinking about it but also hearing it too.

Make these real and authentic. Don’t just go through the motions. You won’t get any benefit from slacking on this.

4) Slow Neck Rolls 

Commuting sucks. Period. And sometimes, when the drive gets to be too much, our bodies tense up like we’re about to get into a fistfight, especially if/when an asshole driver comes across our path.

When you’ve got a red light respite, take advantage of the pause from driving and loosen those tight neck muscles.

Allow your head to naturally droop forward to stretch the back of your neck then slowly roll your head to the right to stretch the left neck muscle, then backward to stretch the front neck muscles and then finally to the left to loosen the right side neck muscles.

Do this neck roll pattern in a clockwise and counterclockwise direction slowly to stretch and loosen your tense neck. Just a couple of slow rolls in each direction is all it takes to get some quick relief.

If the rolls are too much, just do head tilts to the left and right.

5) Forearm & Wrist Stretches

Just like your neck tensed up neck muscles, your forearm and wrists do a lot while driving. Some people have death-grips on the steering wheel which adds to the muscular strains.

When the light is red, it’s a perfect time to take your hands off the wheel and do some simple quick stretches.

Interlace your fingers together like your hands are in prayer.

Then, flip your palms inside out toward the front of the windshield while extending your arms out in front of you as far as possible.

This action will stretch your finger muscles and tendons along with your palm and forearm muscles. It’s a perfect way to stretch while seated. In fact, it’s one of our recommended stretches for relieving hand cramps from typing.

6) Smiling At Strangers

Most of the time, when people are out and about, there isn’t much in the way of pleasantries, especially if you live in a big city. Everyone just basically keeps to themselves.

But every once in a while, you come across someone that flashes a great smile at you. This could be a server at a restaurant, a cashier or maybe even a random person walking by you. You end up smiling back. It lifts your mood.

Many studies like this one from the University of Tennessee show that smiling not only improves our mood but the mood of others too.

Each time you smile or someone smiles at you, a little feel-good party in your brain takes place. The act of smiling triggers neurological signals that benefit your health and happiness.

So, if you want to be happier and spread some joy at red lights, glance over at your lane neighbors and throw them a giant, ear-to-ear smile. You may not get one in return because a lot of people don’t expect it and don’t know what to do.

No worries - just smile anyways. You’ll be boosting your own good vibes.

7) Celebrating Small Wins

Life is busy and everyone’s got a full plate to manage. We’re so focused on all the things that need to get done that we rarely take a step back and acknowledge all the shit we accomplished.

It’s time to change this.

Children and toddlers get all sorts of encouragement and recognition for the simplest of tasks. It could be putting the dirty napkin in the trash, coloring a rainbow, spelling a word correctly, etc. It creates all sorts of joy and happiness for the kid when they are verbally rewarded for their efforts.

Now, as adults, we no longer get this kind of recognition from others. However, when we celebrate small wins, we trigger much of the same feel-good emotions that we all experienced as kids.

So, at each red light on your commute, think of one small win that you can pat yourself on the back for. It could be as simple as scheduling a multi-person meeting in a timeslot that worked for everyone, the final proof-reading of the document, not falling asleep at your desk, etc.

Whatever the victory is, no matter how small, give yourself props for it.

Use Red Traffic Lights For Meditation & Self-Care

sunset meditation
Remember that pain-in-the-ass traffic light? The one that seems to have the world’s longest red light?

Well, it’s time to take a totally different mindset and approach to it.

Instead of defaulting to mindless phone scrolling or just being generally antsy and angry, you can turn this little slice of time into your own personal feel-good micro-moment.

Whether it’s a short breathing meditation, stretching or stirring up some positivity, you can use the traffic light moment as a way to offset the build-up of the day’s stresses.

Don’t see traffic lights as obstacles, but rather as distraction-free moments of peace and solitude. It will help to turn your stressful commute into relaxing me-time.

Give it an honest try and when you find the one or combination of tactics that works best for you, red lights won’t piss you off as much anymore.

And, when that happens, guess what?

You’re sticking it to the traffic gremlins and winning every time.

Feel Better,

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