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Imagine that you could take exactly the amount of time each day to do what you really wanted to do. How much time would you grab for yourself? Now ask yourself something else: If you actually could have that time in your life, starting today, would you be happier? Or, just maybe, would your temporal gift leave you dissatisfied?
In a new research paper (September, 2021), a team of researchers essentially asked these same questions. They examined the link between how much discretionary time people have and their contentment in life. The researchers defined discretionary time as “time spent on leisure activities or other pursuits where the primary function is the use of time for pleasure or some other intrinsically worthwhile purpose.” They surveyed a group of people to make sure that they were capturing acts that the vast majority of folks (over 90%) saw as fitting under the umbrella of discretionary time. Examples included doing nothing, watching television, playing games, spending time with family or friends, going to an art gallery or a comedy club, having sex, watching sports, running, golfing, and doing other forms of exercise. Importantly, not only did the researchers clarify what qualifies as being discretionary time, they also took into account what discretionary time is not. For example, the absence of discretionary time isn’t solely when people are collecting a paycheck; it involves other tasks such as childcare, household maintenance, or going to a doctor’s appointment. Fittingly, they included people in their research whether or not they had a paying job.
The team assessed how discretionary time and contentment are connected in two ways. First, they surveyed people and found out how they spent their discretionary time along with how happy they were with their lives. Second, they ran two experiments asking people to, in the first iteration, carefully and thoroughly picture having varying amounts of discretionary time and, in the second experiment, to also envision that time as either being constructive or not.
The results of their research revealed a few points:
First, insufficient free time (i.e., less than two hours) is related to reduced contentment, and the opportunity to have more discretionary time is linked to feeling better. But this is only true up to a point.
Second, a person can have too much spare time. In this case, the team found that more than five hours of leisure time is connected to less satisfaction.
Third, how people spend five or more hours of free time appears to be important. When it comes to spending time socially engaging with others or pursuing leisure interests that feel constructive, fruitful, rewarding, or beneficial, more time wasn’t related to diminished wellness. Instead, it seems to be time spent alone or doing something that just feels empty or of no real value where more time is linked with lower contentment.
Fourth, it didn’t matter whether they were talking about the weekend or a weekday, or looking at people who have paid employment or not; the results were the same.
What can we draw from this? That depends on our circumstances. As the research team suggested, individuals who just don’t seem to have a free moment in the day might want to try to open up a couple of hours to do as they please. And people who have loads of free time might want to be mindful of how they spend it so that it feels social or valuable. Either way, this research suggests that we can cultivate and fine-tune our relationship with time and leisure in ways that may better serve us.