We all need free time in our day but, according to new research, too much free time can be just as detrimental to our well-being as not enough.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania might have bad news for us all: there really is such a thing as too much free time. They report that people with too little free time experience higher levels of stress, which damages their perception of their own well-being. At the same time, however, people who have too much free time are liable to feel unproductive, even useless, which also damages the levels of well-being they report experiencing in their day-to-day lives.
Too much of a good thing
“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,” said Marissa Sharif, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the paper. “However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better.”
We all know, intuitively, that free time is a key part of feeling happy and fulfilled. However, new research explains that this is only true up to a certain point. Having too much free time can actually reduce our subjective well-being, the team authors explain.
The study is based on data from 21,736 Americans who took part in the American Time Use Survey between 2012 and 2013. As part of the survey, participants gave a detailed account of their last 24 hours, providing an accurate time and duration for each activity they performed. They were also asked to report on their subjective levels of well-being. Perceived levels of well-being increased with the availability of free time up to around two hours per day, and then leveled off. At five or more hours of free time per day, well-being started to decline. Both of these correlations were statistically significant, the team explains.
Data from the National Study of the Changing Workforce, which also recorded information about free time and life quality of 13,639 working Americans between 1992 and 2008, also supported the conclusions drawn from the first survey. Higher availability of free time significantly increased life satisfaction but only up to a certain point. Since the overwhelming majority of participants in this survey didn’t have five or more free hours per day, however, the negative effect of having too much free time was much less apparent in this dataset.
In order to flesh out these datasets, the team carried out two online experiments, totaling over 6,000 participants. In the first one, they were asked to imagine what it would be like to have a certain amount of discretionary free time (i.e. time they could devote to whatever they desired) for a period of six months. Each participant was randomly assigned to either a low (15 minutes per day), moderate (3.5 hours per day), or high (7 hours per day) amount, and asked to report on how much enjoyment, happiness, and life satisfaction they could draw from this free time.
Participants in both the low and high time amount groups reported anticipating lower well-being and happiness than those in the moderate time group. Those in the low free time availability groups anticipated feeling more stressed than those in the moderate group, which impacted their well-being. Alternatively, those in the high levels of free time group anticipated feeling less productive than those in the moderate group, which also lowered their well-being.
During the second experiment, the researchers looked at the role that productivity could play in shaping well-being. Participants here were asked to imagine having either moderate (3.5 hours) or high (7 hours) levels of free time daily, but they were required to spend this either productively or unproductively (for example working out or engaging in hobbies vs. watching TV or using the computer). Overall, participants with the highest levels of free time reported lower levels of well-being when engaging in unproductive activities. However, those that engaged productively with their free time anticipated similar levels of well-being as those in the moderate group.
“Though our investigation centered on the relationship between amount of discretionary time and subjective well-being, our additional exploration into how individuals spend their discretionary time proved revealing,” said Sharif. “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 retirement or having left a job, our results suggest these individuals would benefit from spending their newfound time with purpose.”
The paper “Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being” has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.