Too Much Free Time Is Bad for You, Study Says

A psychological study conducted by Marissa Sharif and colleagues showed that 'too much' free-time is positively correlated with unhappiness - the golden number, apparently, is three-and-a-half hours.

  • Too Much Free Time Is Bad for You, Study Says
    Too much free time isn't idealistic for mental health, apparently. 

Free time is essential for human well-being - however, this only goes to a certain extent. 

“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 research in question. “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.

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. 

According to the study, the "sweet spot" for having free time is 3 and a half hours a day - as that time stretches to seven hours, the benefits of well-being that come with having free time not only decline, but also render the participants to start feeling bad.

“We find that there is an upside down U-shaped relationship between free time and happiness,” said Sharif. "If there is too little, people are less well off than if there is a moderate amount because they feel a lot of stress because there is not enough time to do the things they want to do. The more interesting thing is that having too much free time is also associated with lower levels of well-being and happiness.”

She contended, “How you spend the free time matters a lot," containing, “If you use the discretionary time productively, that can make you feel accomplished, fulfilled.”

Researchers collected the data from 21,736 Americans between 2012 and 2013. Information about their previous day activities and their sense of well-being were collected and measured, and the findings concluded that as free time increased, so did the sense of well-being. However, well-being and happiness stabilized around 2 hours and significantly declined around 5 hours. 

To build on these conclusions, Sharif and her colleagues then carried out 2 experiments: in the first one, 2,250 participants were recruited online and were asked to imagine if they had certain amounts of free time - the free time ranged from 15 minutes a day, three and a half hours a day and seven hours a day - for at least 6 months. Upon imagining, they were asked to report how much they would feel enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction. 

Participants who've had 15 minutes and 7 hours reported that they'd imagine feeling mentally 'bad' in comparison to those in the moderate group, which had three and a half hours. Those who had 15 minutes felt they'd experience more stress in their lives, whereas those in the 7 hours group felt that they'd feel less productive. 

In the second experiment conducted online, researchers asked 5,000 participants to imagine either having three and a half hours of free time or seven hours. The results showed that those in the seven-hour group reported less levels of well-being in comparison to the three and a half hour group, especially if they were engaging in unproductive activities. 

However, those who were engaged in productive activities expected to feel similar amounts of well-being whether or not they had three hours and a half or seven hours 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.”