Healthy Mind

Is There a ‘Free-Time Sweet Spot’? Research Suggests Too Much Might Not Make You Happier

Natalie Arroyo Camacho

Photo by Getty Images/Delmaine Donson
Between sleeping, working, caregiving, and all the other responsibilities and chores that humans have on their plate on a daily basis, the concept of free time can often feel nothing short of elusive. Elusive or not, though, research connects free time and happiness, which makes having leisure as a regular component of your life crucial to your overall well-being. But according to new findings, the amount of free time you have and what you do with it is just as important to consider.

A recently published study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found both too much and too little free time to be linked to lower rates of well-being. The study looked at data from two surveys encompassing more than 35,000 participants focused on how Americans spend their discretionary time, defining discretionary time as “doing what you want to do,” says study co-author Cassie Mogilner Holmes, PhD, a professor of behavioral decision making at the University of California Los Angeles Anderson School of Management. That means personal obligations—such as cleaning, dentist appointments, and the like—don’t count as discretionary time.

“The effect of having more discretionary time levels off after a certain amount.” — Casie Mogilner Holmes, PhD

But while the research found free time and happiness to certainly be connected, there was a limit, with more free time not always equating to more happiness “The effect of having more discretionary time levels off after a certain amount,” Dr. Holmes says. “We actually found in several of our data sets that there's such a thing as too much time.”

According to the results, if you have less than two hours a day of discretionary time, Dr. Holmes says, having more free time would be associated with greater happiness, “but interestingly it's not that more and more is always better,” she says. After more than five hours a day of discretionary time, the positive impact of free time doesn't translate to higher reported well-being.

Whereas having too little time is indeed linked to lower subjective well-being due to stress and being overwhelmed, having too much time (more than five hours a day) can become an issue when you don’t spend that time in ways that you feel are worthwhile and make you feel productive. “The negative effect of having more time, our research is suggesting, is that when we have too much discretionary time, we feel less productive. We have a lacking sense of purpose,” Dr. Holmes says.

Does that mean that having too much time automatically makes you less happy? Of course not. The study also found that spending extra discretionary time on things that you like—a hobby, exercising, or volunteering—can decrease the likelihood of someone reporting lower subjective well-being.

So whether you have two to five hours of free time a day (which Dr. Holmes says is the “free-time sweet spot”) or eight free hours a day, subjective well-being is tied to what you do with that time.

“Spending the available hours that you do have in ways that are ultimately fulfilling for you, in ways that are worthwhile, in ways that contribute to your happiness and social connection,” Dr. Holmes says, is the key to optimizing your free time—no matter how much of it you have.

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