Free Time

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Note: In this edition of e-quilibrium, the terms “free time,” “leisure time,” and “discretionary time” are used interchangeably with reference to hours in the day that a person can spend doing what they want.

“Time famine” refers to the experience of feeling like one doesn’t have enough time and wishing for more time. It is estimated that over half of the population of the United States lives with this perception. Persons experiencing stress related to time pressures have been found to exercise less, have poorer eating habits, and be more prone to depression, indicating that there are health consequences to “time famine.” For those with sufficient monetary resources, spending money to “buy” more free time has actually been linked to more happiness. There is also research evidence that having adequate leisure time is associated with lower blood pressure and decreased risk of depression.

While the majority of Americans wish they had more free time, there certainly are some cultural norms related to productivity that consider the absence of leisure time as a positive. For example, being very busy or overworked is sometimes viewed as a state which conveys social status, and thereby is desirable. But such negative views of free time reduce the potential enjoyment and benefits of leisure. Interestingly, there is evidence that leisure can still have some benefits even for persons who have the mindset that discretionary time is a negative. Not surprisingly, more positive views of discretionary time come with advantages. Research published in the most current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that finding value in one’s free time enhances the well-being effects of leisure.

Of course, too much discretionary time has its own set of potential problems. The phrase, “be careful what you wish for,” can apply to wishing for unlimited free time because being idle or bored for extended periods of time can quickly become unpleasant and unhealthy.

Research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) considered the question of whether there is an amount of discretionary time that is best for well-being. As previously mentioned, data indicate that both too little and too much leisure time can detract from subjective well-being. Somewhere between 2 to 5 hours per day of free time appears to be the sweet spot. Of particularly importance is that what one does with free time, particularly greater amounts of free time, determines how it affects well-being. Spending discretionary time in activities that one finds to be purposeful and/or productive can eliminate negative effects of having too much free time. The authors of the JPSP paper suggest that discretionary time spent in activities that highlight an individual’s sense of autonomy, involve social activities, or are seen as productive appear to be most beneficial.

There are relatively few aspects of human experience where all or nothing is ideal. What’s best is commonly found with some degree of balance. This certainly looks to be the case with the role of free, discretionary, and leisure time in life. Striving to have at least a couple of hours of discretionary time each day appears to be associated with better health and wellbeing.     

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