If you’ve spent the last two years hurriedly rushing from task to task, managing late-night Zoom meetings and constant work calls, surveilled by a querulous, bored toddler and a hungry dog, the idea of unbridled leisure may seem highly appealing. After all, as everyone knows by now, overwork and poor mental health are inextricably related, so much so that companies’ world-over are offering week-long mental health breaks to their employees to prevent absolute burnout. However, turns out that, as with anything else in life, even leisure needs to be moderated. According to a recent study published by the American Psychological Association, too much free time may be almost as bad for your mental health as too little.
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In the paper, Marissa Sharif, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School and lead author, said that having a dearth of discretionary hours in one's day results in greater stress and lower subjective well-being. But she also pointed out that while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better. “Our findings suggest that ending up with entire days free to fill at one's discretion may leave one similarly unhappy,” she said.
The study was carried out by analysing the 2012-13 data of 21,736 Americans who had participated in the American Time Use Survey, an annual survey conducted in the US since 2003, which measures the amount of time people spend on multiple activities including work, leisure, childcare and household chores. By examining this detailed account of what people had done over twenty-four hours and analysing their sense of well-being post it, researchers made the following observations. According to the study, as free time increased, so did well-being. However, this soon levelled off, at the two-hour mark, beginning to decline after five. Also, when researchers analysed data of 13,639 working Americans who participated in the National Study of the Changing Workforce between 1992 and 2008, their findings were similar.
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Researchers also conducted two online experiments, analysing the discretionary time of 6000 participants, to further investigate this phenomenon. According to the study, the experiment revealed that those with low discretionary time felt more stressed than those with a moderate amount, contributing to lower well-being, but those with high levels of free time felt less productive than those in the moderate group, leading them to also have lower well-being. Additionally, researchers found participants with more free time reported lower levels of well-being when engaging in unproductive activities. However, when engaging in productive activities, those with high discretionary time felt similar to those with a moderate amount of free time.
In short, a moderate amount of free time interspersing an otherwise productive day seems to be the formula for enduring satisfaction and happiness. Sharif seemed to believe so. “People should 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,” she said.