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Too much free time can be a bad thing

A new study shows that well-being associated with having more free time only increases up to a certain point. When a person has too much free time, the benefit to their sense of well-being starts to decrease.

“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. However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better,” explained study lead author Dr. Marissa Sharif.

The scientists looked at data from 21,736 American research participants who agreed to take a time use survey from 2012 to 2013. The survey asked the participants to detail 24 hour periods of their life and report on their sense of well-being.

The results showed that a sense of well-being increased with free time until after two hours, after which it leveled off. For those participants with five hours of free time, well-being started to decrease. 

The scientists also looked at data from a survey that was designed to investigate changing workforces in America. One of the questions asked how much free time each person had as well as the person’s perceived well-being. The results from this survey showed the same trend – the sense of well-being associated with free time increased only up to a point, after which it leveled off and even declines. 

To follow up on the research, the scientists conducted online experiments, asking people to imagine being given a certain amount of free time – either a short, moderate or long period. The results, unsurprisingly, were that those with the moderate amount of time had the greatest increase in well-being. 

Questioning the participants further, it seems the key is productivity, those who could use their free-time doing something they considered productive felt a greater sense of well-being. “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 Dr. Sharif.

“Our findings suggest that ending up with entire days free to fill at one’s discretion may leave one similarly unhappy. 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.” 

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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