Too much free time bad for your mental wellbeing, says study

Everything, it is said, is good in moderation, and a new study has found that the adage is seemingly true for how much “me” time we give ourselves.

Analysis of lifestyle patterns of more than 21,000 Americans found that having more free time is linked to increased feelings of wellbeing – but only up to a point.

In fact, when a person exceeds more than five hours of free time a day, their state of mind declines.

Study lead author Dr Marissa Sharif, University of Pennsylvania, said: "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 wellbeing.

"However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better."

Participants in the study were all employed and were asked about what they had done in the last 24 hours and asked to say what activities they were doing and how they felt.

Millennials at work (or not)

“Among the survey’s many questions, participants reported their amount of discretionary time (“On average, on days when you’re working, about how many hours [minutes] do you spend on your own free-time activities?),” the researchers write in their paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers noted that wellbeing improved as people had more time to themselves and peaked at two hours a day, with a plateau from two to five hours.

Mental wellbeing was found to be worse in people with more than five hours of free time a day, and the researchers designed two follow-up studies to study why this was.

These experiments looked at how certain amounts of leisure time – low, 15 minutes per day; moderate, 3.5 hours per day; and high, seven hours per day – influenced happiness.

In the first experiment, the participants were asked to imagine having a given amount of discretionary time every day for at least six months.

Participants were asked to report the extent to which they would experience enjoyment, happiness and satisfaction.

The moderate group scored highest for wellbeing, and the low group felt stressed, while the high group were suffering from a lack of productivity.

Lockdown happiness levels

“[This study] revealed that a lacking sense of productivity is one mechanism explaining the negative effect on subjective wellbeing from having a large (vs. moderate) amount of  discretionary time,” the researchers write.

“These results suggest that the negative effect of having too much discretionary time would be attenuated when that discretionary time is spent productively.”

In the second experiment, researchers looked more at the importance of productivity.

Participants were asked to imagine spending their quota of free time being either productive – such as working out, hobbies or running – or unproductive activities, such as watching TV.

The researchers found participants with more free time reported lower levels of wellbeing when engaging in unproductive activities.

However, when engaging in productive activities, those with more free time felt similar to those with a moderate amount of free time.

Dr Sharif said: "Though our investigation centred on the relationship between amount of discretionary time and subjective wellbeing, our additional exploration into how individuals spend their discretionary time proved revealing.

"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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