Having too much free time is worse for your health than you thought, here’s why

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New research has found that having too much free time might actually have an adverse impact on health and is just as bad as having too little.

It has long been believed that as a person’s leisure time increases, so does their wellbeing, but researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that this might be true but only to a certain extent.

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“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,” the study’s lead author Dr. Marissa Sharif, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

“However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better,” she added.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on Thursday, the study titled ‘Having Too Little or Too Much Time is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being,’ analyzed figures from over 21,700 US citizens who participated in the American Time Use Survey between 2012 and 2013.
The respondents provided detailed information on what they did with their free time, indicating the time of day and the duration of the activity that was conducted within the previous 24 hours. In addition to this, the participants also reported on their sense of wellbeing.

The researchers found that the increase of free time led to an increase in wellbeing. However, it leveled off at about two hours and started to decline after five hours.

The team also analyzed data from 13,639 working US citizens who had participated in the National Study of the Changing Workforce between 1992 and 2008. The survey included a question along the lines of: “On average, on days when you’re working, about how many hours do you spend on your own free-time activities?”

The data from this survey showed that higher levels of free time were “significantly associated” with higher wellbeing levels but, again, only up to a certain point. A surplus in free time was found to not be associated with wellbeing.

To enhance their investigation, the researchers conducted two experiments online which involved over 6,000 participants.

Too little vs. too much free time

The first experiment involved asking people to imagine having given a certain amount of free time every day for a minimum of six months. The respondents were randomly assigned to have different levels of discretionary time: low (15 minutes a day), moderate (3.5 hours a day) or high (7 hours a day).

They were then asked to report back about the extent to which they experienced happiness, enjoyment and satisfaction. Those who were in both the low and high leisure time groups reported a lower sense of wellbeing compared to those who from the moderate discretionary time group.

Those with low discretionary time were found to be more stressed than those with a moderate amount, which contributed to the decline in their wellbeing. However, those with too much free time felt less productive than participants in the moderate group, which contributed to them also having lower wellbeing.

Productivity, free time and wellbeing

The second experiment involved looking at the potential role of productivity, so the team asked participants to imagine having either moderate (3.5 hours) or high (7 hours) amounts of free time per day. However, they were asked to consider their productivity levels as well.

They were asked to imagine spending that free time doing either productive activities such as exercising or running, or unproductive activities such as watching TV or using a computer.

The team found that participants with more free time also reported lower levels of wellbeing when engaging in activities that were unproductive. However, they found that those who engaged in productive activities with more free time felt similar to those with a moderate amount of discretionary time.

“Though our investigation centered on the relationship between time and subjective wellbeing, 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,” she added.

She advised that people 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.”

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