North vs. South and the inherent stress of traffic

By Rachel Revelle

I’m writing from a coffee shop in Atlanta today. I think this is as good a time as any to share that I am preparing for the next big step in my life – I have decided to go back to school this fall for a Masters of Divinity degree. So, this week I have traveled north to visit Yale, and now south to see Emory University. The other options keep me in North Carolina – Duke and Wake Forest. Where will I end up? That is the million dollar question at the moment. I have a lot to think about over the next week or so, and I’m sure I will be sharing more about my desire to go to divinity school as well as the school that ultimately seems to be the best fit.

Because I have had the contrast between New Haven and Atlanta in quick succession, I have been thinking about lifestyle factors that relate to where I may live. I’ll expound briefly on one that may seem trivial, but in fact is an important consideration: TRAFFIC! I flew into New York beginning of the week and had to drive a rental car to New Haven, which, as a native of rural North Carolina, was a rather harrowing experience. For the most part it went smoothly, but I just did not understand the angry honks and hand gestures that I occasionally received. Both the emotional and physical tension that builds when I drive in heavy city traffic is bound to be unhealthy. Interestingly, though, I have been driving in Atlanta with much more ease. Perhaps I’m being biased, but I have perceived other drivers to be more generous, and I just don’t have the fear that I’m going to be harassed.

I know from plenty of friends at Duke from all over the country that Southerners are viewed by everyone else to be horrible drivers.  My inclination is to claim it proudly and continue to wave people to turn ahead of me. I do wonder, however, what is the ideal balance? It seems a responsibility to drive safely, correctly, and according to law. But depending on what you are used to, either the aggression of some drivers or the slow-moving carefulness of other drivers is likely to “drive” you crazy!

Coincidentally, traffic was a topic I came across in my current book last night. I’m reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, in preparation for his visit to Duke on March 19 for the 2013 Boyarksy Lecture in Law, Medicine, and Ethics. He uses modern research in positive psychology to examine ancient wisdom about virtue and morality, and what ultimately gives people meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life. It is a fascinating read, and I find myself sharing little findings constantly. I’ll try to stick to the point. Haidt explains that happiness research in psychology has found that there is a strong relation to genes, and surprisingly, a weak relation to environment. The environment has a smaller effect than we might think mainly because humans adapt to changes in our environment so easily, whether good or bad, and our happiness quickly levels out based on the new conditions. There are, however, a few external conditions that we have an extremely hard time adapting to, and may lastingly affect our happiness level.  One of those is commuting! People often move further away from jobs for larger homes, but while they adapt to more space, they never fully adapt to driving in heavy traffic.

I guess regardless of the other drivers around you, navigating in traffic is inherently stressful. With that in mind, perhaps I should stay put in Durham where I can walk to campus and ride my bike around downtown.