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Why Do Long, Aimless Drives Feel So Therapeutic?

·5-min read

The day I got my driver’s license was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I’d been looking forward to this moment for months — years. As a kid raised in the suburbs, in a town without public transportation, I was excited to be able to see my friends or run an errand without having to negotiate a ride from my parents first. But more than that, I couldn’t wait to head out on a long, peaceful drive with no particular destination in mind.

An aimless drive is, perhaps, an odd thing to fantasise about — or maybe not, given how frequently they’ve been romanticised in songs, movies, TV shows, and books. There is, of course, On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Little Miss Sunshine. Thelma & Louise. Some of these tales feature drives with clear destinations, but all still capture that reckless, directionless, anything-can-happen energy that I associate with aimless cruises. Even before I’d ever sat behind the wheel, I craved a long, destinationless jaunt; I knew, innately, that I’d find these drives therapeutic, even life-changing.

In the 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, the main character, Will Barrett, describes his Trav-L-Aire camper van as “protected, self-contained, yet open to its surroundings, mobile yet at home, compacted… in the world, yet not of the world.” This is probably the best representation of how I feel behind the wheel — like a spectator of the world around me, safe from what’s outside of car, but at the same time, a participant in nature. Navigating a gigantic vehicle makes me feel powerful; the unlimited possibilities of where I may end up make me feel free.

In part because being strapped into a cosy cocoon of a car makes me feel warm, protected, and comforted — insulated from whatever it is that’s going on in the rest of my life — I tend to drive when I need to de-stress and relax. Long car rides also give me a chance to let my mind wander. In the car, I have fake arguments with fake people (I always win), come up with creative ideas (both good and bad), learn the words to my new favourite songs, and work out whatever is stressing me out in the moment.

I know I’m not alone. A quick Google search of “driving as therapy” will take you to numerous articles and Reddit threads about the joys of getting out on the road to clear your head (or go for a “mind-rinse,” as one Canadian publication calls it). Recently, the release of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour had people bonding over their love of aimless cruises. The song “Driver’s License” in particular made people yearn to get behind the wheel and take a meandering drive around the closest suburb, scream-singing along from the privacy of their own car.

“Since the early days of motoring, psychologists have been interested in the fact that driving — as well as being one of the most complex, everyday tasks — is also one that frees up parts of the brain to think productively,” Lynne Pearce, PhD, a professor and the author of Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness, previously told Porsche. In safe, uncomplicated driving conditions, actually navigating one’s car occupies part of, but not all of, your brain, giving you the mental space to think calmly about other issues going on in your life, she says. Maybe that helps explain why my best (and sometimes my most unhinged) thinking comes while I’m behind the wheel.

Being physically incapable of multitasking may also be part of the reason many people find car rides so refreshing, says Cassandra Fallon, LMFT and Regional Clinic Director at Thriveworks in Colorado Springs (though she also points out that many people dislike driving, even aimlessly). “I think a lot of times we don’t take time for ourselves to reflect or relax or just do one thing at a time and so I think [driving] can be a way where you are just doing one or two things versus 15,” she tells Refinery29.

Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT, co-owner of BFF Therapy, agrees. “It’s meditative in a way because it’s really asking you to do one task at a time,” she says. “If you’ve been feeling really anxious and sitting, it’s requiring you to sort of just focus and just use one part of your brain [even if] the rest of your brain might be swirling and spinning and anxious and doing all these other things. I think that’s the rare part of just going on a ride on your own.”

Cars also afford a unique degree of privacy, DeGeare adds. “When are you really alone when no one is watching you?” she asks. “That’s rare, especially when you live in a city or in a house with other people or roommates… you can just be your own weird self for a minute, and we need more of that.”

That explains why, since moving from the suburbs to a big city — a place where cars are not a necessity — I haven’t found a substitute for my destination-less cruises. Going for long walks around my neighbourhood or rides on the train or in taxis or Ubers don’t scratch the same itch. They don’t afford me the same solitude — I’m not even able to sing along to my favourite tunes during these jaunts. But they also don’t require quite so much mental energy, so ultimately aren’t as clarifying or therapeutic.

So, each time I end up going back home to my parent’s house, I make sure to take a drive — I might say I’m going out to grab coffee, but I almost always take at least a few extra turns around the block, trying to tap into that freeing feeling that I’ve been missing. It’s the ultimate cliché, but it’s also true: When it comes to aimless drives, the journey matters so much more than the destination.

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