People love fantasizing about a world with unlimited free time. “If only I had more time, I’d exercise every day,” “If only I had more time, I’d pick up guitar lessons again,” and “If only everyone in my family had more time, we’d spend more quality time together,” are a few examples of these daydreams we love imagining but often don’t realize.
But is it really true that the culprit behind our unfulfilled dreams is a lack of time? Would having more free time make us feel happier and more fulfilled?
Nothing exemplifies this idea more than the hope versus the reality of retirement. Once we exit the job market and have all that free time on our hands, we expect to pick up our old hobbies or start new ones, finally tend to the garden, spend more time with the grandkids, travel, go to the beach every morning, do more volunteering, and so on. You name it.
In reality, many retirees start missing their jobs after a few weeks or months of leisure time. Whether we like it or not, work is an important part of our lives and psychological well-being. It provides us with a sense of purpose, productivity, and meaning. Even once you’re done with all the housework and errands for the day, the remaining leisure time can start feeling boring and monotonous very quickly.
That being said, being overloaded with work, house chores, and other engagements isn’t a recipe for success and happiness either. We’ve all fallen for this trap I think, believing that having a full schedule can fill our lives with the activity that we need to feel energized, motivated, and productive. However, what we’re left with is often the opposite: fatigue, burnout, stress, and a diminished sense of presence.
The truth, as it often happens, is somewhere in the middle.
An article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology intended to answer this question by conducting surveys of 35,375 Americans and two experiments. The fascinating findings of this study can be summed up with the following takeaways:
As much as some people say that they dread their work, all individuals get a sense of fulfillment and joy from solving problems, accomplishing tasks, and generally being productive at work. If that feeling is taken away, people tend to feel lazy, bored and lost. And that can leave a bitter mark on one’s daily life, preventing the person from experiencing joy in life.
Related article: 12 Habits That Prevent You from Being Happy
People who have less than two hours of free time every day are too stressed and busy to enjoy their lives. In order to feel happy, everyone needs a few moments of self-care and self-reflection. Without this crucial me-time, a person would feel overwhelmed and exhausted.
It’s not just about quantity, but also about quality. And the way people spend their free time also matters. When it comes to vacations, it’s better to choose multiple types of activities, such as guided tours, sunbathing, and hiking, to feel most accomplished and satisfied. The researchers found that free time spent in productive ways, like volunteering or gardening, was more satisfying for the participants than simply relaxing in front of the TV. Moreover, people who invested their free time with meaning could safely be engaged in their activity of choice far beyond the recommended 5 hours and still get that happiness boost we all crave.
And last but not least, the experiment showed that free time that involved socializing had a much greater positive effect on the participants’ well-being than solitary activities. These findings go hand in hand with an older study that found that retirees who participated in clubs, group activities, and volunteering were much happier than those who preferred to spend time on their own.
Therefore, more isn’t always better when it comes to free time. How you balance free time and work, as well as the way you choose to spend that free time really makes a massive difference in your level of happiness.