Happiness II: Empathy Lessons from Traffic

The Easter weekend in Norway is a national holiday, running from Thursday through Monday, over which time even supermarkets close. It came to an end yesterday evening, so the traffic warnings had hit the news headlines Sunday night.

Adult citizens who don’t work the holiday weekend (for 100% of their usual wage in additional overtime) often spend it up in Norway’s mountains, where they ski or hike, reopen their weekend cabins (hytter), and get away from a routine that involves the busyness of modern life. Some younger Norwegians drive over to Sweden to get plastered on their cheaper neighbor’s national lawn.

Unusually heavy traffic around Oslo

The Norwegian traffic jam is a sign that one’s hiatus from humankind has come to an end. Thus it is a repeated baptism into the discomfort that one’s fellow humans can and will cause in the coming months – until the next holiday period.

To put things in perspective for readers in Philadelphia (or New York, D.C., L.A., or Mexico City, for that matter): a Norwegian traffic jam involves movement. You do not need to rediscover your car’s air-conditioning because of sunlight beating relentlessly through your windshield. You are not haunted nights thereafter by the slogans on the bumper stickers of the guy in front of you. You do not calculate your chances of getting lung cancer from this one journey home.

A Norwegian traffic jam on a major highway travels between 20 and 40 miles per hour. There is space between cars – often, enough to make the American wonder what on earth the driver means when he grumbles, “There’s traffic.” Traffic has been known to mean distant taillights that are unfortunately still visible.

I would estimate the cars in a serious Norwegian traffic jam at 60% of the average commuter’s “rush-hour”* trip in or out of Philadelphia. I am likely overestimating. After all, the whole of Norway has a lower population than the Greater Philadelphia area.

Many writers have covered aspects of Scandinavian living that they believe account for a greater level of happiness in the region. Often mentioned are higher standards of living, the comprehensive health-care and pension systems, the beauty of nature so near one’s doorstep, the principles of equality and balance that underlie society. All of these are elements that I’d say definitely contribute to a generally more contented state of affairs in Scandinavian countries than we experience here.

But in Norway, there is something else: recognition that too much of one’s fellow human beings is … well, too much. I would not have been surprised to find that it was Henrik Ibsen, rather than Sir Walter A. Raleigh (the later one), who was responsible for the verse my father cheerily introduced me to in my childhood:

I wish I loved the Human Race;
I wish I loved its silly face;
I wish I liked the way it walks;
I wish I liked the way it talks;
And when I’m introduced to one
I wish I thought “What Jolly Fun!”

It comes to mind a lot more than I think fully appropriate. But then … I drive in Philadelphia.

One of my sustaining resources is Dr. Lorne Ladner’s book The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology. In his integration of Western psychology and Tibetan Buddhism, Ladner discusses transforming “many of the challenging interpersonal situations that arise into meaningful, positive experiences” (140-41). So a little less than a month ago, on the first true spring weekend in Philadelphia – sunny, warm, and dry – I set to applying that principle to traffic.

It happened that I had to venture from my northwest neighborhood downtown to pick up a flash drive I’d left at work. The trip is usually a bit less than half an hour, and I had an entire glorious afternoon before me. I left feeling very content with the world.

Halfway downtown, I came to a complete standstill along the river. As it turned out, roughly every third Philadelphian had decided to drive to the zoo this Saturday, by one of the three routes available to get to it – all of which were now blocked.

Ah well, I told myself, no matter. I had plenty of time and might enjoy the moment, and I leaned back to bask in the novel view of sunshine on the river. I sent positive mental energy toward my fellow drivers, wishing them happiness on their day out and imagining the enthusiasm with which they greeted their freedom.

I was able to move forward perhaps 40 feet when two cars in front of me ditched the lane by doing illegal U-turns to head back the way they came.

I moved forward perhaps 120 feet when three more cars did the same.

And so it went.

For an hour.

There is something disheartening about people bailing out of the lane in front of you. Their impatience is like a red flag. It also leaves behind it the unpleasant suggestion of worse to come. I tuned in to the traffic reports again, in case there was an accident or construction ahead that I didn’t know about – but no, they assured me, this was “just traffic.” Nothing special.

Then the honking began.

Average morning traffic into Philadelphia

It started when two cars decided to ditch at the same time. The one in back  started honking at front one that was blocking his exodus. The car coming up behind the back one, from the direction opposite to the traffic, started honking at finding the road blocked. Someone nosed out to see what was going on and got roundly honked at. Gradually, the honking spread all along the line – a wave of pure frustration and anger.

It took me less than two minutes of this to live up to my identity as a native of the City of Brotherly Love by shouting, “What the heck do you think you’re going to achieve by honking, you morons?!” – and wishing for a cull of the population via a massive asteroid hit.

After the first mental apology to my supposedly Christian belief system, I set about considering what I was witnessing in Ladner’s terms. That’s when I realized the flip side of what he and others call “resonant empathy.”

As Ladner sees it, there are different types of empathy. Conceptual empathy is an ability to engage imaginatively with those with whom you’re interacting: to listen, watch for cues of their concern, and imagine yourself in their position in order to understand their feelings (130-34). Resonant empathy, he explains, is closer to a physiological reaction: being in the presence of strong emotions, we begin to imitate them without noticing and incorporate their feeling state into our own (134-38).

It’s common to think of empathy as solely a positive thing. For instance, in her University of Chicago Magazine article on neuroscientist Jean Decety’s research into empathy in The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, Lydialyle Gibson tends initially toward the more altruistic understanding of the phenomenon. Increasing empathy is couched as a worthy goal.

But resonant empathy, being what Decety calls “shared emotion,” doesn’t discriminate as to the emotion being shared. So, yes, I was very empathic in my traffic jam. I became almost as much of a jerk as everyone else. I picked up on all the anger, frustration, and impatience the wonderful technology of car horns managed to convey – and was ready to dish it right back.

What I didn’t manage to do – at least, not for a while – was to turn this into anything positive.

When I broke free of the zoo-directed gridlock, I resolved two things: to find a different route home – preferably one through a drug-infested neighborhood, which presumably wouldn’t attract zoo traffic – and to dust off old Sir Walter as soon as I got back. Then I felt better for knowing there was something I could do, and for being able to laugh.

And as it happened, my drive through some of the more dubious areas around North Broad Street wasn’t at all disturbing. On a different level, I could get back into my appreciation of our mutual condition: residents craving the first shovel-free, boot-free, umbrella-free, and coat-free escape into the sunshine, and a chance to appreciate our surroundings without quite so much effort.

I still agree with Ladner. Awareness of your own reactions to prevailing emotions provides an opportunity to choose a different path – quite possibly, one of benefit to all around you.

But I’m also pretty sure the Norwegians have the right idea by not forcing the issue by too much contact.

*I have considerable qualms about calling it “rush hour” anymore, since there can be no rushing and it runs over roughly three hours.


3 thoughts on “Happiness II: Empathy Lessons from Traffic

  1. Susan

    Jo, I agree with you about North Broad. BTW, I travel up Broad/Route 611 every time I visit my client Quest Diagnostics up in Horsham – which is at least twice per month. I know every junk shop, fish stand, hair-braiding barber, itinerant church, and check-cashing storefront along the way. I’ve actually eaten several times at the Oak Lane diner. These are “salt of the Earth” people who are looking for decent jobs, but the factories and mills of North Philly left many years ago. Yes, it’s rough-and-tumble, but still REAL. I can’t explain why, but I get much more scared visiting other cities where it’s all bland suburbia.

  2. Joanna Mullins Post author

    😀 I don’t intend to make a habit of that travel route – but, in fact, I was safer there than on Kelly Drive. The few suspicious characters I saw on the side streets near North Broad seemed as happy with a spring day as I was, and a lot less eager than the zoo traffic to show their fellow humans how righteous they were. People in those neighborhoods are people. Just as crossing turf can set things off up there, crossing lanes turns minivan drivers into hoodlums.

    I did try the music – but have you noticed how much popular music seems to be about how awful either one’s own life or one’s ex-partner is?! I think I’ll stick to podcasts about ecological pig raising…. 😉

  3. Audrey

    Don’t they say the first step is to identify the problem? LOL! But please, be careful in those “drug-infested neighborhood”… sometimes it’s really worth it to fight your resonant empathy (with good music blasting for example) and not get killed…

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