Is a lot of free time good for your mental health?

free time mental health, free time
Painting of napping women by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) © Joe Sohm

When it comes to time and how to use it, there are plenty of clashing opinions – what do scientists now think about how free time impacts your mental health?

The need for rest in humans, both sleep and then time to play and exist, is well-understood. Across the world, people understand the benefits of good rest. However, the need to work or pay bills often deprives people of time to rest. There are thousands of studies warning workers about burnout, stress, the impact on the nervous system.

However, when it comes to too much free time, there is no cohesive scientific opinion about how this impacts mental health. On top of that, every person is vastly different – raised under different expectations, shaped by different forces that can literally adjust the grey matter of the brain.

The pandemic created an urgency in several ways, but one was in the rush to define the best use of free time. Some people, isolated at home for months and months due to their vulnerability to the virus, found themselves with an abundance of free time. The resultant loneliness impacted thousands, while others leant on support networks and built new hobbies.

So, how does too much free time look?

Now, the American Psychological Association find that too much time can be a bad thing.

“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,” said Marissa Sharif, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School and lead author of the paper.

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

The team analysed 21,736 Americans between 2012 and 2013, so there is no pandemic-tinted level of anxiety running throughout the results. The researchers found that as free time increased, so did well-being, but this levelled off at about two hours and began to decline after five.

In a second analysis, they looked at 13,639 working Americans over a period of just under twenty years. This data proved that higher levels of free time were significantly associated with higher levels of well-being, but only up to a point.

After that, excess free time was not associated with greater mental health.

“Entire days free” may leave people unhappy, says researcher

“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,” said Dr Sharif.

“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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