We’ve all had the kind of day that leaves you slumped on the sofa late at night thinking “I need more free time”. For some of us, it’s chronic, and it’s a sign that something needs to give. Too much work and not enough leisure isn’t sustainable for most humans and inevitably leads to burnout.
Many of us assume that more free time means more happiness. Lifestyle gurus will often recommend that we “make more time rather than more money”, and there’s plenty of truth to that sentiment. However, it ignores the other extreme of the continuum. We know a lot about what happens when we work too much, but we know much less about whether there are negative consequences to abundant free time.
A new study has looked into the full extent of the relationship between free time and wellbeing and it doesn’t look as simple as a straight line. Happiness rises with more free time, but only up to a point. Just as your schedule can be too busy, it can also be too free, especially if you don’t use your freedom in the right ways.
𖼆 The inverted U: how free time affects wellbeing
In a paper published in 2021, researchers ran several studies interrogating how free time impacts wellbeing. They first analyzed data from a large survey of the American workforce covering 13,639 people between 1992 and 2008. There were two key questions in the survey:
- “On average, on days when you’re working, about how many hours do you spend on your own free-time activities?” (answers could fall between 0–20 hours)
- “All things considered, how do you feel about your life these days?” (answers used a 4-point scale from “very dissatisfied” to “very satisfied”)
The researchers analyzed the data from these questions, testing how free time predicted wellbeing. They found a negative quadratic relationship between the two variables — in other words, an inverted U. The schematic chart below shows a simplified version of a graph from the paper: