Study: More Free Time Won’t Always Make You Happier

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Key Takeaways

  • Researchers found that having a moderate amount of free time is ideal for mental health and wellbeing.
  • Too little free time led to stress, while too much led to a lack of sense of purpose and productivity.
  • Balancing work and free time day by day may be the secret to finding an optimal sense of wellbeing.

Not having enough free time can lead to feeling overworked, too tired, and burnt out. Typically, you don't feel as happy and anxiously await time off. But what happens when we don't know what to do with that free time, or when we feel we have too much of it?

Researchers from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that being at either end of the extreme is not good for our mental health and sense of wellbeing.

Study author Cassie Mogilner Holmes, PhD, professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, tells Verywell that this research goes against the intuition that more is better.

"Up to a certain point, you see that the relationship between the amount of time that you have and happiness levels off," she says,

Given the schedule- and time-related changes brought on by the pandemic, finding our personal sweet spots between too much and too little free time might be more necessary than ever. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in early September.

More Free Time Doesn’t Always Mean More Happiness

Mogilner Holmes and colleagues investigated the link between free time and happiness and wellbeing through two surveys and two experiments.

First, they looked at survey results of more than 21,000 Americans who responded to questions about how they use their time. Participants provided detailed descriptions of what they did over the last 24 hours, as well as how long they spent on each activity and their sense of wellbeing.

Researchers found that free time and wellbeing were positively linked until about two hours of free time, and began to decline after five.

"The data shows an arc [between the two]," Mogilner Holmes says.

Then, they reviewed data collected from more than 13,000 employed Americans, asking them about how much free time they had as well as their overall sense of wellbeing. Again, they found that having more free time was beneficial—but only up to a certain point. More time did not equal more happiness.

Survey results, although useful, can have their limitations. So, they designed online experiments to see if they could observe similar findings as well.

They recruited about 6,000 people who were assigned to imagine different amounts of free time during the day. Throughout, they were asked to report how they would feel in these scenarios, to gauge their probable sense of wellbeing.

Participants in the second experiment were also asked to imagine spending free time on either "productive" activities (like working out, hobbies, or running) or "unproductive" activities (like watching television or using the computer). 

Again, having too much free time was just as detrimental to a sense of wellbeing as not having enough. Those on the lower end felt stressed that they did not have enough time to do things that rounded out their lives and gave them a sense of purpose.

On the other hand, those who had more leisure time felt stressed about not being productive enough. Ultimately, people who fell somewhere in the middle scored higher in happiness.

However, the second experiment also helped researchers see that engaging in activities perceived as "productive"—like practicing an instrument or doing exercise videos that make you feel good—helped participants feel better when they did have more than enough free time. This was not the case for those who spent it on "unproductive" activities.

This Finding Might Be Different Across Cultures

While the research is multi-faceted and draws on large sample sizes, Mogilner Holmes says that it'd be important to consider these research questions in different cultural contexts.

"All of our data sets are looking at Americans," she says. "It would be lovely to test this question in different cultures."

Although she doesn't expect much of a difference from a purely psychological perspective, the context might affect the details. That is, how much free time is considered too much or too little.

What This Means for You

The data tells us that when we find ourselves with what we might consider too much free time, we can help ourselves ahead of time by finding ways to make that time meaningful. For example, we could use it deliberately, perhaps by spending time with friends and family, volunteering, or hobbies.

Moderation Is Key

The data shows us two important forces, Mogilner Holmes says. There's the "too little time effect" and the "too much time effect." The former is driven by stress, whereas the latter is driven by a sense of purpose.

"It's a simple finding," she says, that comes from a personal curiosity.

There are days when Mogilner Holmes asks herself if she'd happier if she just quit everything. "As someone who has a full-time career, two young kids, a husband who works as well, while trying to stay healthy," she adds. But the data, of course, suggests against the extremes.

"This is about the day-in and day-out," she adds. People need to try to balance all their duties and free time over a longer period of time, rather than approaching time with an all-or-nothing mentality.

"Moderation is the secret to happiness," she says.

1 Source
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  1. 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. doi:10.1037/pspp0000391

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.