Turns out too much free time can be a bad thing

• Yes, there is such a thing as having too much free time, according to a new study.
• The way you spend your free time can diminish your sense of well-being.
• There’s a difference between productive free time and unproductive free time.

While consensus thinking tends to believe that as free time increases, so does one’s sense of well-being — new research found that too much free time can be a bad thing.

A study conducted by the American Psychological Association — published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — found excessive free time may diminish well-being due to people not perceiving their time as being productive, meaning there’s a difference between using your time to work on a hobby versus spending hours streaming TV shows.

“More time” does not always lead to happiness

“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,” Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better.”

While workers struggle to find time to disconnect with work, whether in the office or remotely, de-stressing with additional free time isn’t going to happen unless you’re being productive. Sharif said that the key component to using your free time wisely is by being productive, which can be a bit difficult to understand in today’s context. Productivity isn’t measured by keeping busy; it’s related to a sense of purpose in life.

What researchers determined is higher levels of free time were significantly associated with higher levels of well-being, but only up to a certain point. Researchers said that your well-being begins to level off around two hours and begins to decline after five.

The study featured an experiment in which participants were asked to imagine having free time each day, ranging from moderate (3.5 hours) or high (7 hours). In these scenarios, they were told to picture how they wanted to spend that time, whether productively, through hobbies or exercise, or unproductively, like watching TV or using your computer.

Lower levels of well-being were reported when participants engaged in unproductive activities despite having more free time; conversely, when people engaged in productive activities with more free time, they felt similar to people who had 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,” Sharif said.

“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.”

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