Too much free time can also be a bad thing (well, maybe)

Having not enough free time can make you feel bad. That’s why as an individual’s free time increases, so does that person’s sense of well-being. But this is only the case up to a point. New research shows that too much free time can also be a bad thing… The study is interesting, but it’s important to note that it is about subjective well-being and that the study worked with hypothetical situations in which the respondents reported the extent to which they would experience enjoyment, happiness and satisfaction. Imho these are important limitations. It would be very interesting to test this in more real-life situations.

From the press release:

“People often complain about being too busy and express wanting more time. 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,” said Marissa Sharif, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School and lead author of the paper. “However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better.”

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers analyzed the data from 21,736 Americans who participated in the American Time Use Survey between 2012 and 2013. Participants provided a detailed account of what they did during the prior 24 hours — indicating the time of day and duration of each activity — and reported their sense of well-being. The researchers found that as free time increased, so did well-being, but it leveled off at about two hours and began to decline after five. Correlations in both directions were statistically significant.

The researchers also analyzed data from 13,639 working Americans who participated in the National Study of the Changing Workforce between 1992 and 2008. Among the survey’s many questions, participants were asked about their amount of discretionary time (e.g., “On average, on days when you’re working, about how many hours [minutes] do you spend on your own free-time activities?”) and their subjective well-being, which was measured as life satisfaction (e.g., “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?”)

Once again, the researchers found that higher levels of free time were significantly associated with higher levels of well-being, but only up to a point. After that, excess free time was not associated with greater well-being.

To further investigate the phenomenon, the researchers conducted two online experiments involving more than 6,000 participants. In the first experiment, participants were asked to imagine having a given amount of discretionary time every day for at least six months. Participants were randomly assigned to have a low (15 minutes per day), moderate (3.5 hours per day), or high (7 hours per day) amount of discretionary time. Participants were asked to report the extent to which they would experience enjoyment, happiness and satisfaction.

Participants in both the low and high discretionary time groups reported lower well-being than the moderate discretionary time group. The researchers found that those with low discretionary time felt more stressed than those with a moderate amount, contributing to lower well-being, but those with high levels of free time felt less productive than those in the moderate group, leading them to also have lower well-being.

In the second experiment, researchers looked at the potential role of productivity. Participants were asked to imagine having either a moderate (3.5 hours) or high (7 hours) amount of free time per day, but were also asked to imagine spending that time in either productive (e.g., working out, hobbies or running) or unproductive activities (e.g., watching television or using the computer). The researchers found participants with more free time reported lower levels of well-being when engaging in unproductive activities. However, when engaging in productive activities, those with more free time felt similar to those with a moderate amount of 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,” said Sharif. “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.”

Abstract of the study:

Many people living in modern society feel like they do not have enough time and are constantly searching for more. But is having limited discretionary time actually detrimental? And can there be downsides of having too much discretionary time? In two large-scale data sets spanning 35,375 Americans and two experiments, we explore the relationship between the amount of discretionary time individuals have and their subjective well-being. We find and internally replicate a negative quadratic relationship between discretionary time and subjective well-being. These results show that whereas having too little time is indeed linked to lower subjective well-being caused by stress, having more time does not continually translate to greater subjective well-being. Having an abundance of discretionary time is sometimes even linked to lower subjective well-being because of a lacking sense of productivity. In such cases, the negative effect of having too much discretionary time can be attenuated when people spend this time on productive activities.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.