- Researchers examined the relationship between free time and happiness.
- Having between two and five hours per day of free time maximizes happiness.
- How people spend their free time matters.
Imagine that you have woken up on the first day of a much-anticipated vacation. You enjoy a leisurely breakfast, take a stroll on the beach, and read the morning paper as you sip on coffee. Things are off to a great start, and you are feeling happy and relaxed—just like you predicted when booking the trip. By the time the late afternoon rolls around, you may start to feel downright bored!
If you have ever felt like this, you’re not alone. It turns out that having unlimited free time is not always as incredible as we expected. For instance, retirees fantasize about how happy they will be once they leave their job behind in exchange for unlimited cocktails and novels on the beach.
Yet, the reality is that many who retire enjoy leisure at first but, only weeks later, realize they actually miss that job they left behind, which provided a sense of productivity, purpose, and meaning to their life. Full day after day of leisure can get old quickly. On the other hand, being busy with work and other productive obligations from sunrise to sunset can’t be good for our happiness either because of the stress.
The tension between being too productive and too bored raises the question: What is the optimal amount of free time for our happiness?
Researchers sought to answer this question by surveying tens of thousands of participants, collecting data on how they spent their time and how happy they were (Sharif, Mogilner & Hershfield 2021). The results from their study revealed three key takeaways:
1. Having less than two hours of free time per day causes too much stress to be happy.
After looking at the data, the research team found that having less than two hours per day of free time was not enough to be happy. Participants with under two hours of discretionary time per day reported increased stress, meaning that they were simply too busy with work, errands, child care, or other matters to maximize their happiness.
The fact that being too busy undercuts happiness is obvious, which might lead to the conclusion that more free time is simply better. However, that’s not what the research team found.
2. Having more than five hours of free time per day causes a lack of feeling productive, which reduces happiness.
Surprisingly, having a lot of free time is not a silver bullet for happiness. People derive a certain sense of joy from being productive and accomplishing tasks/goals, and this sense of joy is lost when we spend all day relaxing on the beach or watching Netflix at home. While there certainly is a time and place for spending an entire day relaxing, having a consistent abundance of leisure time undermines happiness due to boredom.
3. How we spend our free time matters.
The final takeaway from the research was that two aspects were critical when it comes to how we spend our free time. First, when free time is used in more productive ways, like playing a team sport or volunteering, then five or more hours per day can maintain or even boost happiness. Second, free time spent socializing with others has a similar positive effect, whereas spending five or more hours of leisure time alone can stunt happiness.
Retirees who volunteer or join clubs are happier (Kelly & Ross 1989), and vacations with the right balance of stimulation (hiking, scuba diving, tours, etc.) and relaxation make us the happiest. Surprisingly, more is not always better when it comes to relaxation.
You can consider this to be the Goldilocks principle of free time: two hours or less per day is too little, five hours or more per day is too much, and between two and five hours is just right.
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Kelly, J. R., & Ross, J. E. (1989). Later‐life leisure: Beginning a new agenda. Leisure Sciences, 11(1), 47–59.
Sharif, M. A., Mogilner, C., & Hershfield, H. E. (2021). Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(4), 933.