Feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list can certainly make you unhappy, but new research suggests that more free time might not be the magic elixir many of us dream it could be.
In a new multipart study released last week, researchers analyzed data from two large-scale surveys about how Americans spend their time. Together, the surveys included more than 35,000 respondents.
The researchers found that people with more free time generally had higher levels of subjective well-being ― but only up to a point.
People who had up to two hours of free time a day generally reported they felt better than those who’d had less time. But people who had five or more hours of free time a day generally said they felt worse.
So ultimately the free-time “sweet spot” might be two to three hours per day, the findings suggest.
“While too little time is bad, having more time is not always better,” said Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School and lead author of the paper, in a press release.
How people spend their free time matters.
Of course, most people know instinctively that being too busy can cause stress. But the new study is not the first to question whether more free time will actually make people as happy as they believe it will. Experts note, for example, that some adults struggle with the “retirement blues,” which can be due to a lack of stimulation and structure, among other things.
Part of finding this seemingly elusive “sweet spot” has to do with how people spend the extra time they have, the researchers behind the new study argue.
In addition to analyzing the surveys, they also conducted several smaller online experiments. In one they asked participants to imagine having 3½ to seven free hours per day. They were asked to imagine spending that time doing “productive” things (like exercising) or to imagine doing “unproductive” activities (like watching TV).
Study participants believed their well-being would suffer if they had a lot of free time during the day — but only if they used it unproductively. Though that experiment was hypothetical, which is one limitation of the new research, it’s certainly in line with other research showing that being in a state of “flow” can be good for people’s mental health.
In other words, how people use their free time matters, and “ending up with entire days free to fill at one’s discretion” may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, Sharif said.
Of course, what feels “productive” is up to you. If watching two hours of “Real Housewives” in your free time increases your happiness, you should do that. The point of all of this is self-care, not shame.
And even more traditionally productive or purposeful activities can be easy and fun. Engaging in a bit of low-key cardio, like walking, can help burn stress, as can stretching. Free-time activities like knitting, reading, cooking or gaming are also known to put people in a state of flow.
“In cases when people do find themselves with excessive amounts of discretionary time, such as retirement or having left a job,” Sharif said, “our results suggest these individuals would benefit from spending their newfound time with purpose.”