Is it bad to have too much free time?
To what extent is it true that the more free time we have for leisure activities, the happier we are?
Everyone appreciates having free time, time that we can spend on our hobbies, going for a walk, meeting friends or simply taking a break from the frenetic pace of a working life.
The relationship between happiness and free time seems to be directly proportional. As our free time increases, so does our sense of well-being, but to what extent? Is there a limit?
Is too much free time a bad thing? This has been a question that has been addressed experimentally over the last decade and whose revealing data we will discover below.
Is it bad to have too much free time?
Most workers live the hectic pace of everyday life. Most of our days are taken up with work obligations, which make us feel like we have no time for anything. We tell ourselves that we need more vacation time, that we wish our weekends were three days long or, fingers crossed, we get off work early.
The word "business" comes from the Latin "nec" and "otium", literally meaning "no leisure", which is why we associate that the more working hours we have the less time we have to enjoy our hobbies, family, friends and rest, activities that bring us well-being and satisfaction. It is for this reason that most of us have in our heads the idea that having more free time means being happier, but...But... What is so true about this statement, and can having too much free time be a bad thing?
It is this question that has motivated Marissa Sharif's group, made up of researchers from the universities of California and Pennsylvania, to carry out a research project focused on finding out to what extent free hours imply well-being and happiness.
Neither too much nor too little
Although previous research had already pointed out that having too little free time implies dissatisfaction and a lack of well-being, having too much free time is not always a good thing, too much time is not always a good thing. In Sharif's research, entitled The Effects of Being Time Poor and Time Rich on Life Satisfaction (the researchers analyzed data obtained from a sample of about 35,000 people.
In the first part of this research, data from 21,736 U.S. citizens who participated in the American Time Use Survey between the years 2012 and 2013 were analyzed, in which participants indicated what they had done the 24 hours prior to answering the questionnaire, indicating the time of day and duration of each activity they had performed, in addition to reporting their degree of well-being.
The researchers found that, as free time increased, so did well-being, but there was a limit to how much free time they could spend.The researchers found that as free time increased, so did well-being, but there was a limit: at two hours it was maintained, and when they had five hours of free time it began to decrease markedly.
In another phase of their research, Sharif et al. (2018) also analyzed information obtained from 13,639 Americans who participated in the National Study of the Changing Workforce between the years 1992 and 2008. There were all kinds of work-related questions in the survey, but some were aimed at finding out how much leisure time the participants had. Among these questions were:
"On average, on the days you are working, how many hours/minutes do you spend in leisure activities?"
"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, 4. very dissatisfied?"
Again, Sharif's group found that high levels of free time were significantly associated with high levels of well-being, but there was still a limit. People who exceeded that limit of free time did not manifest higher well-being beyond that point, meaning that more free time is not synonymous with more happiness. It's like in the story of Goldilocks: neither the small chair nor the big chair makes her happy, only the medium one.
Free time, well-being and productivity
To better understand this phenomenon, researchers conducted two online experiments involving a sample of more than 6,000 participants. In the first experiment, volunteers were asked to imagine themselves having a certain number of free hours each day over a six-month period.
Participants were randomly assigned to have little (15 minutes a day), moderate (3.5 hours a day), and a lot (7 hours a day) of free time. Participants were asked to indicate what they believed their degrees of enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction would be.
Participants in the low and high free time groups reported that they believed they would have lower well-being compared to the moderate group. The researchers found that those who had little leisure time felt more stressed than those who had moderate leisure timeThe researchers found that those with a lot of leisure time felt more unproductive than those in the moderate group, which also reduced their subjective well-being.
The second experiment was to find out the potential role of productivity. To do this, participants were asked to imagine having moderate (3.5 hours) and high (7 hours) free time per day, but were also asked to imagine spending that time on productive activities (e.g., exercising, hobbies, or running) and unproductive activities (e.g., watching TV or using the computer).
The researchers found that participants with more free time indicated lower levels of well-being when doing unproductive activities. In contrast, those who did productive activities, even when they were assigned to the group with a lot of free time, felt satisfied and had levels of well-being similar to those in the moderate free-time group. and with levels of well-being similar to those of people in the moderate leisure time group.
Retirement and unemployment
While the research had initially focused on finding out what the relationship was between subjective well-being and the hours of leisure time available, investigating how people spend their leisure time and to what extent it influences their well-being also yielded revealing findings. Their research suggests that having whole days of free time to fill can lead to a feeling of unhappiness..
With this in mind, the research highlights the need to learn how to properly manage free time, especially when one finds oneself going through periods such as retirement or being unemployed.
People in this type of situation may run the risk of feeling deeply dissatisfied, unhappy and feeling that they are wasting their time, which is why it is highly recommended to fill the empty time with activities such as attending training courses, taking language courses, playing sports or doing any activity that has an organized time frame.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)