'Too much free time won't make you happier,' says psychologist—how many hours you really need in a day
I remember in 2013, sitting on the late-night train home from New York City to Philadelphia, feeling utterly overwhelmed with life. For a working mother, it felt like there weren't enough hours in the day to get everything done.
My research has since shown that I wasn't the only one who was struggling. As a social psychologist and behavioral science professor at UCLA, I wanted to know: Will having more hours of free time actually make us more satisfied in life?
So I enlisted my colleagues to study how tens of thousands of Americans spent a regular day, as well as their overall happiness levels. The results were illuminating.
First, we calculated how much time people had in a day to spend on discretionary activities, such as relaxing, watching TV, playing sports or hanging with friends.
Then we tested how that calculated amount of time related to their satisfaction in life.
What we found was that two to five hours of free time in a day is ideal for boosted happiness. Having less than two hours or more than five hours of free time a day, however, decreased happiness.
The data confirmed that I was "time poor" — or feeling like I had too little time available to do all that I needed and wanted to do.
On the other hand, regularly having more than five hours of discretionary time in the day is too much, because it undermines one's sense of purpose.
It's worth pointing out that having a sense of purpose does not require working in a paid job. For example, unpaid volunteer work often provides a sense of purpose.
Additionally, tasks required to produce well-functioning households or for successful parenting can similarly offer a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
Yet I recognized that in my case, work gives me a significant source of purpose.
The flatness of life satisfaction between two and five hours suggests that, except at the very extremes, the way we spend our free time matters a great deal.
We have 24 hours in a day, but the way we perceive time is subjective. This is important because how long a minute, an hour, a day, or a decade feels informs whether you view yourself as having "enough" time.
Feeling confident that you are able to accomplish everything you want to do is the definition of being "time affluent." I learned that even with the 90 minutes of free time I had a day, I could make my days feel less overwhelming and more fulfilling.
Here are three ways to feel more "time affluent," without adding more free time to your schedule:
1. Get moving.
Try 30 minutes of exercise per day for a few days this week. It's important to block out time in your calendar for this. The activities don't have to be strenuous; just taking a slow jog outside or walking to work — instead of driving — is enough.
After your session, write in a journal about how you're feeling (most likely, you'll feel great). So the next time you think you don't have enough time to work out, you'll remember how you felt, and that the time will be worth it.
2. Practice acts of kindness.
In one of my studies, I found that giving time to other people can make you feel like you have more discretionary time.
Sometime this week, perform two random acts of kindness — one for a friend or acquaintance, and another for a stranger. It's up to you what you do, but here are some ideas:
- Pay for a stranger's order at a coffee shop.
- Give someone a compliment.
- Help a coworker complete a task.
- Bring a family member a tasty treat or beverage.
- Leave a friend flowers or a nice note.
Whatever it is, do it with the sole purpose of benefiting the other person. Don't think about or anticipate receiving anything in return for your kindness.
3. Experience awe
The ocean has always had a powerful effect on me. It inspires and fills me with a sense of awe. Finding ways to achieve this feeling can expand your perception of time.
In one study, researchers showed that compared to reflecting on a happy event, reimagining an awe-inspiring event made people feel less hurried. It also made them behave as though they had more time — making them more willing to volunteer their time for a charity.
Try to fit one of these experiences into your week:
- Social interactions: Whether through physical intimacy, eye-opening conversation, or cradling a newborn, our interpersonal relationships extend us beyond ourselves.
- Being in nature: Take a stroll in your neighborhood park. Look up at the moon. Catch the golden-pink glow of dawn or dusk, and you'll feel less rushed.
- Absorbing art: I vividly remember as a college student being awestruck by Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night." At first, I was anxious to take notes for my essay. But standing there, peering at the artist's swirling vision, I was enraptured and moved beyond concern about time.
- Witnessing accomplishment: Tremendous inspiration can be found in individual achievement. Watching a skillfully executed athletic feat, for example, can open our eyes to the magnificent possibilities of humanity.
During moments of awe, absolutely nothing feels limiting — certainly not the minutiae of the day's schedule.
Cassie Holmes is a psychologist and professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. Her work on the intersection of time and happiness has been featured in such outlets as NPR, The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. She is also the author of "Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most."
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