In our time-crunched world many of us lament our lack of free time, which can lead to burnout and a host of stress-related health issues.
However, researchers say there’s a fine balance when it comes to the amount of free time necessary for good mental health and wellbeing.
Can too much free time actually be harmful? Here’s the surprising answer…
Researchers from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that as a person’s free time increases, so does that individual’s sense of well-being.
But here’s the kicker…
They discovered that too much free time is also detrimental.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Marissa Sharif, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School and lead author of the paper, explains the new findings, saying, “We found that having a dearth of discretionary hours in one’s day results in greater stress and lower subjective well-being. However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better.”1
The research team found that excessive free time may actually diminish well-being. That’s because folks don’t feel they’re being productive. As Prof. Sharif points out, productivity means more than simply filling one’s time.
“How you spend the free time matters a lot,” Prof. Sharif said. “If you use the discretionary time productively, that can make you feel accomplished, fulfilled.”
Large-Scale Study on Time Use
The researchers first step was to analyze data from 21,736 Americans who participated in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey between 2012 and 2013. Participants offered detailed accounts of their last 24 hours and their correlating sense of well-being.
Not surprisingly, the analysis revealed that, as free time increased, so did the participants’ sense of well-being—at least initially.
“Up to a certain point, you see that the relationship between the amount of time that you have and happiness levels off,” says co-author Cassie Mogilner Holmes, PhD, professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
After two hours of free time, the participants reported that their sense of well-being and feelings of happiness started leveling out. At five hours, these positive feelings began to decline.
Then researchers dug a little deeper…
Productive vs. Unproductive Free Time
Next the team looked over data collected from more than 13,000 employed Americans. They asked this group how much free time they had, and to describe their overall sense of well-being.
What did the researchers learn?
As with the previous study, they found that free time was beneficial, but only up to a certain point. Basically, free time doesn’t buy you happiness.
Surveys of this ilk that rely on self-reported data are useful, but they’re not without limitations. So, researchers went back to the drawing board…
They recruited 6,000 folks who were asked to imagine different amounts of free time during the day. Then the participants were asked to explain how they would expect to feel during each of these scenarios.
Additionally, these people were told to imagine spending their time engaged in either “productive” activities like exercise or hobbies or “unproductive” pursuits such as watching TV.
Sure enough, researchers found that having too much free time was just as bad for well-being as not having enough.
Those people on the lower end of the free time scale reported feeling stressed that they had too little time to do things that gave them a sense of purpose. On the flip side, those with a bounty of leisure time struggled with the notion that they weren’t being productive enough. Turns out, the people who landed somewhere in the middle scored the highest when it came to perceived happiness.
What’s more, the research also revealed that perceived happiness improves when a person’s free time is spent on productive activities, such as gardening or practicing an instrument.
The scientists published their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.2
These studies were conducted with working Americans. However, I’d like to see more research on retired people who often find themselves with an excess of free time. In a way free time is like money in the bank.
How are you going to spend it?
Previous studies show that it’s important to spend our time deliberately, engaging in activities that give us a sense of purpose, especially as we age.
For instance, one study suggests volunteering might lengthen your life.3 Volunteers lived longer than people who didn’t volunteer if they reported altruistic values or a desire for social connections as the main reasons for wanting to volunteer, according to the study.
However, don’t discount the value of spending your free time with friends and family, pursuing a hobby, taking a walk, or enjoying a good book.
- Marissa A. Sharif, Cassie Mogilner, Hal E. Hershfield. Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2021
- https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/11/volunteering#:~:text=Comment%3A,the APA journal Health