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Having too much free time can be detrimental to people's well-being, study finds

While being short on free time can be stressful, too much downtime may not be the solution

Photo (c) Tommaso79 - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the American Psychological Association explored how the ratio of people’s productive time to free time impacted their well-being

According to the researchers' findings, there is such a thing as too much free time. Though it’s difficult for many people to find time to unwind, it’s important to find a balance between being busy and having an abundance of downtime. 

“People often complain about being too busy and express wanting more time,” said researcher Marissa Sharif, Ph.D. “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. However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better.” 

Finding the right balance

To better understand how people’s free time can impact their well-being, the researchers analyzed data from two ongoing studies and conducted two online experiments. They pulled the data from the American Time Use Survey and the National Study of the Changing Workforce. Both studies analyzed general well-being, life satisfaction, free time, and time spent completing other activities. 

Both studies showed that having more free time was associated with a greater sense of well-being. However, once subjects reached or exceeded five hours of free time, their happiness started to dip. In fact, the researchers learned that once the participants had two hours of free time, their well-being plateaued. 

Moderation is key

In the first online experiment, participants had to imagine having a designated amount of free time for six months -- either 15 minutes, 3.5 hours, or 7 hours per day -- and then report on their satisfaction and happiness. Participants that had the most imagined downtime weren’t as happy as participants in other groups, and too much free time left them feeling stressed about not being productive. However, those who were given the shortest amount of free time also felt stressed and weren’t as happy as those given a moderate amount of downtime each day. 

The final experiment examined how being productive during free time can impact people’s well-being. The researchers again divided participants into groups based on their allotted free time per day, but this time they had the subjects imagine completing productive tasks within that time frame versus having that time to be unproductive. They learned that using free time to get things accomplished made the participants feel better about having so much downtime; the opposite was also true -- spending the free time in an unproductive way was linked with more unhappiness. 

In all of these trials, the biggest takeaway was moderation. Free time is necessary, but too much downtime without productivity can be detrimental to people's happiness. 

“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,” Dr. Sharif said. “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.”

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