Chilling Out or Wasting Time?

How much free time is good for you?

Overwork, and the stress associated with it, can be detrimental to your sense of wellbeing. Ergo, more free time must be beneficial, right?

A Natural Experiment

A funny thing happened this year. A lengthy statewide lockdown was implemented due to the Coronavirus. I lived and worked through this. And although my life was never busier, this was not always true for my clients.

There was a large variability in how each of my clients’ life change due to lockdown.

Some clients were unable to work. They, or their employer, might have received a government benefit to keep them away from work. Their lives were much less busy, but usually they continued to receive some income. Their free time increased dramatically. I’ll call this group, Group 1.

Some clients continued to work (but predominantly from home) and had pretty much equal demands as before. These clients either had no school aged children or had another adult who performed the home school duties. This group had slightly more free time, mainly due to commute reduction. This is Group 2.

Some clients, particularly those with school-aged children who required help with schooling, greatly increased their duties. This group continued to work from home whilst juggling one or more home-schooled child. This group, who had much less free time, will be called Group 3.

The lockdown became a natural experiment into the effect of increasing or decreasing the amount of free time on wellbeing. I was checking in with these clients right throughout this period, so I got a good sense of who was thriving, who was surviving and who was struggling.

So, which group was happiest?

All groups experienced some level of stress due to the changes. Each of the groups experienced lost opportunities  for social and leisure activities. Each group experienced some level of frustration or worry about the virus and the political response.

Beyond these similarities, Group 2 clearly struggled the least. Members of this group were more likely to tell me of the benefits of the lockdown. They were more supportive of a longer and harsher lockdown.

Group 1 and Group 3 struggled the most, but in different ways.

Members of Group 3 reported higher levels of stress and anxiety related to trying to cover the increased in demands in their lives. They were run ragged by the unending pressure of being workers and teachers simultaneously.

Group 1 was the most interesting of all. Several people in this group started the lockdown feeling much better. In fact, several clients in this group briefly dropped out of therapy at the start of lockdown. However, some of these same clients contacted me 1-2 months down the track with symptoms of depression. They had lapsed into unhealthy patterns whilst out of routine. Patterns such as excess internet time, over-eating, drinking too much, and isolation.

All Work and No Play…

I was reminded of this natural experiment when I read about a recent study by Marissa Sharif and colleagues published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers scoured two large-scale data sets with a combined number of 35,375 American participants. The data was drawn from massive surveys that asked participants about how they spent their time and about their sense of life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing.

The researchers found that too much or too little discretionary time led to lower senses of wellbeing. How many hours is the Goldilocks amount? The magic number seemed to be between 2.5 and 5 hours of free time per day.

The researchers also delved into the type of discretionary time associated with more quality of life/wellbeing. Social time led to more of wellbeing than alone time. The researchers notes that “when spending discretionary time socially, more is better”. If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, spending with a friend is a good way to go.

Additionally, productive discretionary time led to more wellbeing that non-productive time. The researchers again: “when people spent large amounts of discretionary time non-productively did, they report lower subjective well-being”.

For me, this latter finding begs the question: if time is being spent “productively”, is it really free time at all? Surely discretionary time is that which has an intrinsic value (it is not spent in the service of someone else, or for a longer term goal).

A commentary on this study, in the magazine Vice, questions whether the American obsession with productivity and work is making free time feel like wasted time. Maybe Americans (and other westerners, other peoples don’t seem to feel this so strongly) can’t simply enjoy guilt-free free time. Productivity has to be king (see Relaxation Induced Anxiety).

Another paper, released in the November 2021 edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology investigated non-productive leisure time. Over three studies, the researchers demonstrated that when participants viewed leisure time as wasteful, they experienced less pleasure from the activity. The same activity (in the study example, going to a Halloween party) could be more or less pleasurable depending on whether it felt ok to just experience pleasure for its own sake.

What to do with this knowledge? What are the take-home messages from these studies? What can the natural experiment of Covid teach us? I believe three things are important:

  1. Make sure you have at least some free time every day. Some leisure or discretionary time is important. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy (and much worse if Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is to be believed). Play and chill-out time are not a waste.
  2. And if you have a lot of free time, make it good free time. Sometimes life just gives us a bunch of free time uninvited. Maybe it’s a lockdown, or a job loss, or an injury. If this happens, try to spend your time with others. Or be productive: learn an instrument or language or build something.
  3. But also release yourself from the guilt of productivity. If you are spending your free time watching the cricket or reruns of Friends, or mastering Diablo-II, don’t get down on yourself. You get the most out of these activities if you don’t experience them as wasted. Turn off your Inner Critic, we all need to switch off some time.

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