Most of us crave free time and for good reason. It offers us a sense of relaxation, renewal and wellbeing. But can you have too much free time? Yes. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that the benefits of free time have their limits.
The findings come from an ingenious series of experiments and several sources. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and the University of California, Los Angeles conducted two online experiments involving over 6,000 participants.
In one experiment, subjects were asked to imagine they had a daily block of free time over a period of six months. Some were randomly allotted 15 minutes of imaginary spare time, others 3.5 hours and still others, seven hours. Each participant was asked to rate their level of enjoyment and satisfaction. The results showed that those in the moderate group with 3.5 hours of imagined free time were the most content, while those with less, as well as those with extended periods of discretionary time, reported lower levels of satisfaction and happiness.
The second online study focused on the relationship of free time and productivity. In this case, results showed that participants were happiest both with moderate and longer periods of proposed time as long as they imagined using these hours productively — such as by working out — as opposed to unproductively — such as by watching television.
“People often complain about being too busy and express wanting more time. But is more time actually linked to greater happiness?”
To further investigate the subtleties of free time, the researchers analyzed data from the 2012-13 American Time Use Survey in which approximately 28,000 participants reported what they did during a 24-hour period. The results showed that wellbeing increased with up to two hours of free time, but after that period it was a slippery slope. Contentment not only leveled off, but with an increase of five hours or longer of free time, any sense of wellbeing significantly declined.
The team also looked at information gathered from nearly 17,000 Americans who participated in the National Study of the Changing Workplace between 1992-2008. Many questions about discretionary time were posed; and here, too, the responses showed that there was a limit to how much free time was considered pleasurable.
In all instances it appears that too much spare time comes at a cost. “People often complain about being too busy and express wanting more time. But is more time actually linked to greater happiness? We found that having a dearth of discretionary hours in one’s day results in greater stress and lower subjective well-being,” Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School and co-author of the paper, said in a statement.
“Our findings suggest that ending up with entire days free to fill at one’s discretion may leave one similarly unhappy. People should instead strive for having a moderate amount of free time to spend how they want. In cases when people do find themselves with excessive amounts of discretionary time, such as in retirement or having left a job, our results suggest these individuals would benefit from spending their newfound time with purpose,” she added.
The poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “Time is a storm in which we are all lost.” As surprised as you may be to discover that having lots of free time doesn’t feel quite as great as you might have thought it would, you can find satisfying ways to navigate that storm. Choose purposeful ways to spend your spare moments in physical exercise, developing or pursuing a hobby, volunteering, getting together with family and friends, or taking a class online or in person.
The study, “Having Too Little or Too Much Time is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being,” is available here.