This is How Much Free Time You Need for Happiness

free time

By Yvonne Milosevic

Unless you’re unemployed or retired, it’s likely there aren’t enough hours in the day to crush your entire To-Do List. For many of us, free time remains an elusive concept as we juggle a multitude of work and personal obligations. Still, making room in your daily schedule for leisure is essential no matter your situation. And researchers say they’ve found the “sweet spot” when it comes to how much discretionary time we need each day for happiness.

According to a study published last fall in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, our well-being increases as our free time does—up to a point. The Wharton School’s Marissa Sharif and UCLA Anderson’s Cassie Mogilner Holmes and Hal Hershfield say the magic window is between two and five hours of free time a day. But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be two or more consecutive hours of relaxation. It just needs to be true moments of leisure that add up to that daily recommended amount.

Having a moderate rather than scant amount of free time each day makes people happier, obvi. But Sharif, lead author of the study, found something else even more compelling. Namely, a moderate amount of discretionary time is better than a large amount when it comes to one’s well-being.

We know having too little free time isn’t healthy. Yet having too much also reduces happiness.

We can thank the Founding Fathers’ Protestant work ethic for our general inability to enjoy idle moments. 

It’s How You Use Your Free Time

Sharif, Holmes, and Hershfield analyzed data from the government’s ongoing American Time Use Survey on some 35,000 people and then engaged thousands more subjects in separate experiments to reach their conclusions.

One experiment explored the potential connection between productivity and well-being. Participants imagined either having a moderate (3.5 hours) or high (7 hours) amount of leisure time each day. Next, the researchers asked them to imagine spending that time in either productive or unproductive activities. Think exercise, socializing, and hobbies vs. watching TV and web browsing.

free time

Participants with more discretionary time reported lower levels of happiness if they filled those hours with unproductive activities. However, the researchers found no real difference in well-being between those who spent moderate or large amounts of free time doing something productive.

“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,” says Sharif.

“Our findings suggest that ending up with entire days free to fill at one’s discretion may leave one similarly unhappy.”

As with many things in life, moderation is key. Yes, even when it comes to how much leisure time we have. Sharif says people with excessive free time—e.g., the newly retired or unemployed—would benefit from spending their time with purpose.

Tips for people on both ends of the spectrum

If you have too little discretionary time:

  1. See if time confetti is eating away at your leisure.
  2. Become more intentional about protecting and respecting your free time.
  3. Outsource and delegate tasks so you can allocate those extra moments to your bank of leisure time.

If you have too much time on your hands:

  1. Find ways to use your time productively, such as volunteering.
  2. Spend time socializing with friends and family.
  3. Pick up a new skill, or devote more time to your favorite hobbies.

Anything you find worthwhile and fulfilling—even if it’s as simple as sitting on the beach watching the waves roll in—will help make your free time happier.

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