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Free Time: Why Having Too Much or Too Little Isn’t Good

Free time has a “Goldilocks zone” that’s just right for subjective well-being.

Key points

  • Many people feel like they don't have enough free time and wish they had much more discretionary time.
  • Having either too much or too little free time is linked to lower subjective well-being, new research suggests.
  • Having a sense of purpose can counteract the potential risks of excessive free time.
Lisa Runnels/Pixabay
Source: Lisa Runnels/Pixabay

"I've got nothing to do and all day to do it. I'd go out cruising, but I've no place to go and all night to get there. Is it any wonder I'm not a criminal? Is it any wonder I'm not in jail? Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?" —"Too Much Time on My Hands" by Styx (1981)

If asked to imagine ourselves living in a Utopian world, many of us might fantasize about a hedonic existence that included endless amounts of free time to do whatever we felt like doing during every hour of every day.

Here on planet Earth, when your daily grind involves being constantly overscheduled and overworked, it's easy to imagine that the opposite end of the spectrum—having nothing on your calendar and infinite amounts of discretionary time—would fill you with eudaimonia and lead to higher levels of subjective well-being (SWB). But, new research suggests that we should be careful what we wish for when it comes to having copious amounts of free time.

A recent four-pronged study found that having too much free time is almost as detrimental to our subjective well-being as having too little. These findings (Sharif, Mogilner, & Hershfield, 2021) by a trio of researchers from UPenn's Wharton School and UCLA's Anderson School of Management were published on September 9 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Goldilocks Zone: Having a Little Extra Free Time Boosts Life Satisfaction, Having Too Much Doesn't

Marissa Sharif, Cassie Mogilner, and Hal Hershfield found that there's a Goldilocks zone of free time that seems to be just right. This moderate sweet spot appears to be about 3.5 hours of discretionary time per day. On the opposite ends of this continuum, having very low amounts (<30 minutes) of discretionary time or very high amounts (>7 hours) of free time were both associated with lower subjective well-being scores.

In terms of time management, there appears to be a sweet spot between boredom and burnout that's linked to having an amount of discretionary time that's just right. "Our findings suggest that ending up with entire days free to fill at one's discretion may leave one [feeling] unhappy," Sharif said in a September 2021 news release. "People should instead strive for having a moderate amount of free time to spend how they want."

This four-part study included an analysis of two previous surveys involving over 35,000 people and two novel online experiments involving over 6,000 participants.

Analysis of data from the American Time Use Survey, which was conducted between 2012 and 2013, found that among 21,736 American respondents who gave a detailed account of what they'd done in the 24 hours prior to filling out the survey, having more free time was associated with higher subjective well-being up until about two hours but started to decline if people had more than five hours of free time on their hands.

Similarly, data from the National Study of the Changing Workforce, which was conducted between 1992 and 2008, queried 13,639 working Americans about discretionary time by asking questions like: "On average, on days when you're working, about how many hours [minutes] do you spend on your own free-time activities?"

Additionally, subjective well-being was measured by life satisfaction ratings based on a Likert scale survey question: "All things considered, how do you feel about your life these days? Would you say you feel 1 = very satisfied, 2 = somewhat satisfied, 3 = somewhat dissatisfied, or 4 = very dissatisfied?"

This survey also showed that having slightly more free time was linked to higher life satisfaction but only up to a point; having excessive amounts of free time was associated with less life satisfaction.

How Much Free Time Is Too Much? It Depends on Feelings of Productivity and Purpose.

To pinpoint how much productive vs. unproductive discretionary time is just right, researchers developed and conducted two separate online experiments.

In the first online experiment, 2,550 participants were asked to imagine having various amounts of discretionary time at their disposal every day for six months. Free time allotments were broken down into three tiers: low (15 minutes per day), moderate (3.5 hours per day), or high (7 hours per day).

Participants were randomly assigned different imaginary free-time allotments and asked to mentally simulate to what extent they'd envision feeling happiness, satisfaction, and enjoyment. Notably, participants in the high and low discretionary time groups imagined that they'd feel worse than people in the moderate (3.5 hours) discretionary time group.

In the second online experiment, researchers focused on productive versus nonproductive discretionary time. For this study, 5,001 study participants were asked to imagine having different amounts of free time per day but were also given the definition of discretionary time as "time spent on activities that are pleasurable or meaningful to you."

As the authors explain, "For each condition, participants were prompted to imagine and vividly describe what it would be like to have the given amount of discretionary time (i.e., how they would spend this time, what they would be doing during the other portion of their days, and how they would be feeling each day) throughout this period of their life."

This online survey showed that when people were engaging in activities that felt unproductive, having too much discretionary time was linked to lower levels of subjective well-being. However, when they were engaged in productive activities that increased their sense of purpose, having lots of free time had less of a negative impact on SWB scores.

Having a Sense of Purpose Offsets the Risks of Too Much Free Time

"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," Sharif concludes. "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."

References

Marissa A. Sharif, Cassie Mogilner, and Hal E. Hershfield. "Having Too Little or Too Much Time is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published: September 09, 2021) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000391

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