Up and down the economic ladder, many Americans who work—and especially those raising kids—are pressed for time, wishing they had more of it to devote to leisure activities (or even just sleeping). At the same time, research has indicated that people who are busy tend to be happier than those who are idle, whether their busyness is purposeful or not.
A research paper released late last year investigated this trade-off, attempting to pinpoint how much leisure time is best. Its authors examined the relationship between the amount of “discretionary time” people had—basically, how much time people spend awake and doing what they want—and how pleased they were with their lives. (Some examples of “discretionary” activities were watching TV, socializing, going to the movies, spending time with family, and doing nothing.)
The paper, which analyzed data covering about 35,000 Americans, found that employed people’s ratings of their satisfaction with life peaked when they had in the neighborhood of two and a half hours of free time a day. For people who didn’t work, the optimal amount was four hours and 45 minutes.
The research traced a correlation between free time and life satisfaction, but didn’t provide any definitive insight into what underlies that correlation—“which is exciting, because this is a work in progress,” says Cassie Mogilner Holmes, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and a co-author of the paper, which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed or published in an academic journal. Holmes’s co-authors are her UCLA colleague Hal Hershfield and Marissa Sharif, a professor at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school.