PHILADELPHIA — Retirement may be the light at the end of the tunnel for millions of workers, but some studies find that it may actually be worse for your health than thought. Now, new research sheds more light onto why this is. It turns out that having too much free time may be nearly as bad for our health as having too little. Researchers say that as a person’s leisure time increases, so does their sense of well-being — but only up to a certain point.
“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. However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better,” explains study lead author Dr. Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, in a statement.
The research team analyzed figures from more than 21,700 US citizens who participated in the American Time Use Survey between 2012 and 2013. Participants provided a detailed account of what they did during the previous 24 hours, indicating the time of day and duration of each activity. They also reported their sense of well-being.
Results show that as free time rose, so did well-being, however, it leveled off at about two hours and began to decline after five.
The team also looked at data from more than 13,600 working Americans who participated in the National Study of the Changing Workforce between 1992 and 2008. Among the survey’s questions, participants were asked about their amount of discretionary time; for example, “On average, on days when you’re working, about how many hours do you spend on your own free-time activities?”
Again, the data shows that higher levels of free time were “significantly associated” with higher levels of well-being, but only up to a certain point. After that, excess free time was not associated with greater well-being.
To further investigate the phenomenon, the researchers conducted two online experiments involving more than 6,000 participants.
In the first experiment, the participants were asked to imagine having a given amount of discretionary time every day for at least six months. The participants were randomly assigned to have a low (15 minutes per day), moderate (3.5 hours per day), or high (seven hours per day) amount of discretionary time. Participants were asked to report the extent to which they would experience enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction.
People in both the low and high discretionary time groups reported lower well-being than the moderate discretionary time group. The researchers say that those with low discretionary time felt more stressed than those with a moderate amount, contributing to lower well-being. However, those with high levels of free time felt less productive than those in the moderate group, leading them to also have lower well-being.
In the second experiment, researchers looked at the potential role of productivity. Participants were asked to imagine having either a moderate (3.5 hours) or high (seven hours) amount of free time per day. They were also told to imagine spending that time in either productive activities – such as working out, hobbies, or running – or unproductive activities, such as watching tv.
Participants with more free time reported lower levels of well-being 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.
“Although our investigation centered on the relationship between the amount of discretionary time and subjective well-being, 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,” the authors write.
“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,” adds Dr. Sharif.
This study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.