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There Really Is Such a Thing as Too Much 'Free Time', According to Science

CLARE WATSON
10 SEPTEMBER 2021

Got more free time than most folk? Be mindful of how you use it, as new research suggests that having more than two hours of free time a day is no guarantee for wellbeing, and what matters most is how you spend it.

 

Led by Marissa Sharif, a marketing researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, the study crunched data from a series of online surveys and experiments to examine the relationship between levels of leisure time and personal wellbeing.

Past research shows that valuing time over money and spending money to buy more free time are both linked to greater happiness. Sharif and colleagues wondered whether having oodles of free time would make people feel better, too.  

Feeling pressed for time takes its toll: Not having enough free time to rest, recharge and indulge in recreational fun, leaves people feeling overworked and stressed out; just ask any health professional or essential worker about the current global pandemic.

"Our findings suggest that ending up with entire days free to fill at one's discretion may leave one similarly unhappy," say Sharif and colleagues.  

"With too much discretionary time, people may infer lack of productivity and purpose – thus feeling less happy and less satisfied in their lives."

Data on roughly 21,700 American adults collected between 2012 and 2013, showed that wellbeing increased with more leisure time, but only to a point; this trend was replicated in a second dataset of nearly 14,000 working Americans surveyed between 1992 and 2008.

 

So beyond having two hours of free time in a day, more time does not promise greater happiness, the researchers say. And wellbeing waned when people reported having more than five hours of free time in their day, the study found.

"These results suggest that having too much discretionary time undermines people's sense of productivity and purpose, thus leaving them less satisfied overall," Sharif and colleagues write.

However, it really depends on how people spend their free time, as further experiments showed. If people said they spent their discretionary time in worthwhile ways – on productive or social activities which the researchers describe as "physically or mentally engaging" – the negative trend of having 'too much' time was weaker.

"Our research importantly highlights that the number of daily hours an individual has available to spend as they choose, as well as how they allocate those hours, is critical to wellbeing," the researchers write.

But despite the big numbers, some of the survey data are quite dated (from the time before social media), from one country (of workaholics), and the experimental studies asked people to imagine how they'd feel with more or less free time, spent in various ways.

 

As for the sweet spot between two and five hours, "these amounts are inexact and based merely on eyeballing a graph, which represents one dataset and buckets together many types of individuals according to the amount of time each spent on discretionary activities in one given day," the study authors caution.

But we can still learn something from being observant of how we spend idle time, other research shows.

Instead of scrolling social media, using small pockets of free time dotted throughout busy days to connect with friends or family, get your heart rate up or let your mind wander, can bring about benefits.

"Constant connection paradoxically results in less free time, and periods when we are able to think without interruption give precious refuge from the demands of daily life," sociologist Rowland Atkinson and marketing researcher Mariann Hardey wrote in 2018 for The Conversation.

On the other hand, having excessive access to enjoyable activities can lead people to savor them less. So, as this new study suggests, it's about finding the right balance between hours devoted to productive, meaningful work and to restorative recreation; the ultimate balance might vary person to person, but there really can be 'too much of a good thing' here.

Sharif and colleagues hope their study spurs future investigations into more precise research questions, noting that there are "a slew of other variables that play into people's overall assessment of their satisfaction in life."

How we spend our time is just one.

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.