Why Do We Need Free Time: What Studies Tell Us

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Free time can be defined as time that is “free from duties or responsibilities”[1]. While I have always assumed that free time is important, I started wondering why and what type of free time we need or not.

Enjoying free time simply to welcome a new season

So, why do we actually need free time? We need free time because, when used adequately, it can help us:

  • reduce our propensity for stress and depression
  • recover faster and perform better
  • increase our level of creativity
  • live a longer, healthier life
  • play – which makes us better learners and happier individuals
  • build long-lasting social connections

In the following paragraphs, I will dive deeper into the reasons why free time is important to us.

1. Why Having Free Time is Important to Us

When doing my research on this topic, I found that having free time leads to a lot of potential benefits for us.

However, although free time has in itself some positive impact on our life, very often we can only rip all the benefits of it if we use our extra time in a certain way. This is why I felt compelled to mention some types of activities directly when describing the reasons why we need our free time.

Free Time Reduces Stress and Depression

Nowadays, an incredible amount of physical and mental diseases have been scientifically proven to be related to stress. Securing some free time for yourself might just be one of the most important steps to help decrease your own level of stress.

In 2015, a study by Zawadzki, Smyth and Costigan showed how people seem to have “more positive and less negative mood, more interest, less stress, and lower heart rate when engaging in leisure than when not”.

This in itself is already promising.

Free time also gives you the opportunity to precisely do stress-reducing activities. For example, many studies have shown that spending time in nature has a relaxing effect and reduce anxiety.

Having a little extra time also gives you the opportunity to practice meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce levels of stress and induce a lot of other health benefits. Among other studies, here is a link to one published in 2004 by Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt and Walach about “mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits”.

Another very impactful way to spend your free time is to practice self-love and self-compassion. One of my favourite books about that topic is Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself*. In this book, Kristin Neff explains how self-compassion leads to a happier life, whereas self-esteem can lead to more suffering. Having free time is essential to practice being kind and compassionate towards yourself.

Last, your uncommitted time is very important to help you put things into perspective. When our schedules are tight, we tend to just let Life happen to us. Taking a break is important so that we can reflect on our daily life. In the long run, this, too, will have a tremendous positive impact on your mental health.

Free Time Leads to Better Recovery

Free time is essential for you to actually give your body and mind the opportunity to rest and recover. To be fully healthy, we need to engage in different types of activities regularly.

If your work is physical, your body needs to recover. Free time allows you to engage in non-physical activities (e.g. reading, meditating, hanging out with friends). And vice-versa, if you are sitting in front of your desk and computer all day – I hate to say that – but you may want to move (e.g. walks, sports) in your free time.

This variety and recovery time is not only essential for your health, but also for your performance. We now know that excessive weight-lifting will cause you to stop growing muscles (or even lose muscle mass). Working extra hours on intellectual tasks will fatigue you and you will be more prone to making mistakes.

Free Time Increases Creativity

Besides helping you perform better and increase your productivity, allowing yourself to enjoy enough free time also will raise your level of creativity.

Indeed, many leisure activities, including simply doing nothing, are known to contribute to creative insights. Here is an article from Forbes I find interesting on that topic.

Free Time Will Make You Live Longer

As a result of all the benefits on your mental and physical health, free time can actually help increase your chances to live longer.

In this interesting study, Bloemen, Hochguertel and Zweerink found that earlier retirement increased chances for men to live longer on average. Other studies show how leisure activities have the same impact on your longevity.

You Need to Have Time to Play

Playing is how we digest daily information. It helps us learn better and generally raises our level of happiness.

But what does “play” mean for you?

Many adults forget the true meaning of it, as they constantly feel under pressure to perform, be productive and progress – even during their so-called “free time”.

This is why you need to redefine this word for you and make sure that more of your free time equals playtime.

It is Important to Have Free Time to Bond with Others

Your social bonds play a crucial role for your health and happiness. The stronger and lasting they are, the better. But in order to maintain or improve your connection with your friends and family, you need proper free time. Being physically present will not suffice.

This is why disposing of enough free time is essential. If you come back from work and have just 1 hour to share with your close ones – will that even be enough for you to come down and be mentally present as well?

2. How much Free Time is Ideal?

How much free time is ideal, then?

A study by Sharif, Mogilner and Hershfield published in 2018 showed how Americans seem to be best off with approximately 2.5 hours of free time per day. Below this threshold, people tend to feel time pressure and deprivation.

Interestingly, though, having more than 2.5 hours of free time per day seems to lead to less satisfaction. This may be due to individuals’ desire to cultivate a positive self-image. Indeed, one hypothesis is that people who have a lot of free time are labelled as being lazy or idle individuals.

Therefore, a nation’s work and leisure culture seem to play an important role in defining how much free time is ideal.

But what about how you put your free time to use? Does this also play a role in making sure that your free time actually makes you happier and healthier?

3. How Should We Deal with this Free Time?

Over-scheduling your free time is very counterproductive, according to a study from Tonietto and Malkoc published recently.

Indeed, the authors of the study show how strict scheduling “takes the fun out and puts the work [into]” your free time. But I guess you still need some scheduling in order to get things done and juggle between hobbies, socialising and healthy activities.

The study suggests that scheduling can be done – as long as the schedule remains vague and flexible enough. For example, if you plan on seeing friends for lunchtime and reading a book at night, you should be totally able to keep it fun.

However, planning every free minute: 10 am breakfast with my best friend, 12 pm lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, 2 pm piano lesson with Mrs Notfun… turns your leisure time into tough work.

On a last note: a study by Ackerman and Gross, published in 2003 shows how too many options and possibilities will, by itself, give you the feeling of time deprivation and time pressure. This is why I would urge you not only to have a more flexible schedule but also to be more selective on what you want to do and who you want to meet during your free time… Read more about this in my other article about to-do list overwhelm.


[1] https://www.thefreedictionary.com/free+time

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