Recently, writer Charlie Warzel published an essay asking what turned out to be a very provocative question: "What if people don’t want ‘a career’?" It was a rumination on the rising frustration with and malaise in the job market, burnout, and the existential question of whether our sole focus in life should be to dedicate the majority of our waking hours to a corporation.
As Warzel wrote this week, the essay not only was three times as popular as anything he’s ever published in his newsletter but also spurred a reaction that was “violently split” between people for whom the topic resonated and those who “saw career skeptics as entitled, coddled complainers looking for handouts and, in the process, sullying the American work ethic for good.”
This dichotomous backlash represents a growing shift in how some people are starting to think about work and downtime. We’re in the midst of what’s been called the Great Resignation, while simultaneously, ideas are percolating about how we could fundamentally change how much work dominates our lives. In the original essay, Warzel referenced YouTuber Katherout saying, “I no longer aspire to have a career,” noting, “It’s not that she rejects all labor—she rejects how central it is to our sense of self and worth.”
“We need to change everything about how we work today: We work too much, we have too little power over our own time, and we cannot do it all,” Nicole Frolo recently wrote in Zora. “The pandemic has made this evident; we are overworked and underpaid, some of us more than others.”
But exactly how much work should we do, and how much free time should we have? Where does this mythical balance lie? In the midst of a greater work-life reckoning, a new study was published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology with, at first blush, counterintuitive findings.
The researchers found that more leisure time—the very thing many say they’re craving—isn’t always a good thing. The research analyzed data from two large surveys on how Americans use their time, with a total of over 35,000 people, and found that both too little and too much leisure time were associated with lower subjective well-being. Specifically, between 2.5 and 5 hours was the sweet spot.
This led to a flurry of headlines proclaiming that too much leisure is bad for you. “Study links too much free time to lower sense of well-being,” The Guardian reported. “Yearning for free time? Too much of it could take a toll on your mental well-being,” wrote NBC News. “Scientists find too much free time is bad for you,” according to The Hill. One article warned: "More than five hours of leisure a day causes greater stress and lower well-being, study finds."
The actual findings of the paper are much more complex (and interesting) than a discovery of a concrete upper limit to leisure. The authors did find a modest negative relationship between well-being and free time when it exceeded five hours. But they also showed that when people used their extra time in meaningful ways—like socializing, or activities that felt purposeful, not passive—that negative relationship vanished. Then, the relationship to free time became linear: More was better.
In the context of a larger conversation on work, careers, and people's time autonomy, it’s not difficult to see how a simplistic interpretation of this study could be spun in nefarious ways. Say, a company nodding to research about the perils of “too much” discretionary time to justify limited PTO or vacation policies. One economics nonprofit based in the UK already used the findings to hedge the potential benefits of universal basic income, writing that, “A popular idea is that the wealth created from robot workers could be shared out amongst us in the form of a Universal Basic Income, so everyone gets a decent amount of money without having to work. But if having too much spare time really does bum us out, perhaps even this work-free, money-rich future wouldn't be as great as it sounds.”
A desire to fixate on an optimal number of hours of free time reveals just how complicated our relationship with leisure is. It shows how we often view discretionary time as something that we should be wary of, and avoid having “too much” of, lest we be lazy. Yet the very idea that leisure is wasteful is likely much more damaging to our well-being than breaking a rule about the correct number of hours of leisure per day.
What we can learn from this research is that providing people with a life with tons of extra free time won’t always automatically make them happier. That doesn't mean we should strive to stay within a certain hourly range of leisure but that we need to better learn how to be leisurely in the first place—a skill that Americans in particular may be lacking.
Most of the work on leisure has focused on time scarcity, or when people have small amounts of discretionary time. “Most people know someone, or are someone who gives themselves a really hard time about engaging in leisure,” said Gabriela Tonietto, an assistant professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School. “People say that they want leisure, they want work-life balance, but they don’t actually use their leisure time. Plenty of Americans don’t use all their vacation days. Many of us work while on vacation.”
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It’s also been called “time famine,” that feeling of being starved for more time, and it’s prominent among Americans. In 2016, a national poll found that almost half of Americans said they didn’t have enough time to do what they wanted. This has, somewhat ironically, led to a fixation on optimization and productivity: doing more in less time, in order to have more extra time.
The new paper was inspired by work that senior author and UCLA psychologist Hal Hershfield and co-author Cassie Mogilner published five years ago, in which they found that when you asked people if they would rather have more time or more money, those who chose time were happier (even with the results adjusted for income). Hershfield and Mogilner talked about it on the radio and a caller asked, “If time is better than money, how much time should we have?”
“We realized that’s actually a really interesting question,” Hershfield said. The question wasn’t, What’s the exact number of hours per day that is best? “For us to be able to prescriptively say, 'Here's the number of hours you should have' would be a foolish piece of advice to give,” Hershfield said.
Hershfield explained they were more interested in the overall nature of the relationship between the time we have that’s “free” and our well-being. Was more time always better? Or did its benefits level off at some point, the way the benefits of money have been shown to do?
With first author Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, they found that the relationship between the amount of free time a person has and well-being can become linear if the way that person is spending the time is social and “productive.”
Hershfield said they used the word “productive” agnostically—it's not getting-up-at-4:30-to-write-a-novel productive, but productive in contrast to more passive activities, like scrolling through Instagram. Still, what’s considered productive to each person can vary. “My productive leisure time could be making sure that we watch White Lotus so that I can talk to other people about it,” Hershfield said. “Or it could be finally trying woodworking.”
Time scarcity is a concept many people are familiar with. But these findings show that even if tomorrow we were magically gifted with tons of free time, we might not use that time in ways that would make us the happiest—in part because we don’t have much practice with leisure, or regard it in positive ways.
How we view our time is tied up in how we use it, and how it affects our health. The fact that "productive" uses of time negated the negative effects of "too much" leisure is a bittersweet, complex finding that's resonant with other work on leisure that has shown that people often regard it as wasteful.
Selin Malkoc, an associate professor in marketing at Ohio State University, and Tonietto have found that a significant minority of people have this extreme view on leisure, and it has ramifications. Thinking that leisure is wasteful leads to less enjoyment of any leisure activities you may partake in, especially activities that are done for pleasure alone. People who thought of leisure as wasteful also reported enjoying their own hobbies less, and had increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
“Our conclusion was that leisure is important, and not seeing it as important could also be potentially bad for you,” Tonietto said.
The negative effects in the new research are likely explained by this, in part: the fact that being idle and non-productive can make us feel bad. "It's definitely possible an abundance of discretionary time would not have as much of a negative impact on well-being if people perceived it as less ‘wasteful,’” Sharif said.
“My interpretation of the [new] findings is when people start to feel idle, the effect turns around and starts to have negative consequences on well-being,” Malkoc said. “We have this Protestant work ethic that drives American culture to a large extent. There is all this productivity orientation and needing to stay busy.”
When Malkoc took her American husband to Turkey for the first time, to a beach club on the Aegean coast, he asked her what they were going to do at the beach. “What do you mean?” she recalled saying, and as she recounted in The Conversation. She insisted they were there to relax, whereas her husband needed to fill the downtime with activities. “I started noticing all the ways the imperative to ‘do stuff’ kept marching along in the U.S.,” she wrote.
What was underneath the desire to always be doing? The idea that doing nothing is worse—wasteful, not useful, unproductive. In this way, one could imagine two people who had the same number of leisure hours, but one person enjoyed them less because of the way they appraised leisure.
Malkoc said picking a number for any optimal or suboptimal amount of time use could even lead to stress in and of itself, she said. Malkoc and Tonietto have found that scheduling leisurely activities can lead to less enjoyment of those activities.
Other work has shown it can be detrimental to view your time through such narrow lenses. Sanford DeVoe, a professor of management and organizations at UCLA, studies what happens when people think about their time in terms of money, if they ascribe a dollar amount to each hour. Putting a monetary value on time places an emphasis on economic value and blinds people to other considerations, like whether their time will bring them happiness.
This can impact how time gets used. One example DeVoe has looked at is volunteering. Volunteering is linked with higher well-being, but when people think about their time as an hourly wage, they’re much less likely to volunteer. People who think about their time in terms of money are more likely to spend their time networking with work colleagues, even though it’s not as enjoyable as spending time with friends or family.
Whether it's a dollar amount, or number of hours, “I think as a society, we are after shortcuts,” Malkoc said. “We are trying to find this lucky number. We want a heuristic to go with and let that be our guide, because it’s an easy way to get out of a predicament. But oftentimes it is an oversimplification.”
“It kind of kills me when all these headlines come out saying to have between two and five hours,” Hershfield said. “I’m getting these messages from my friends that are like, ‘Five hours? Okay, good luck with that.” Somebody wrote, ‘How to tell people you don’t have a kid without saying you don’t have a kid.’”
On the one hand, those people with under 2.5 hours could feel like since they’re under the threshold, they’re doomed. On the other, people who, for whatever reason, have more than five hours—even if they’re using it in ways that are beneficial for themselves—could feel like their leisure is bad for them.
The negative effects of "too much" time were, as Hershfield and the paper pointed out, relatively small, since there are many other determinants of our happiness and well-being. It’s yet another reason why attaching value to the number of hours won’t be beneficial for most people.
A more practical and translatable takeaway from the work is that the effect, however small, was diminished once people used their free time in ways they found meaningful to them—but still ways that weren’t tied to work. “The way people spend their discretionary time matters a lot,” Sharif said.
It is much easier to pledge to get 2.5-5 hours per day of leisure than to try and change our appraisals of how we view downtime, or learn how to leisure in ways that are meaningful. And whether we like it or not, those of us who live in America do live within a context where busyness and productivity is valued and used as a social signal to communicate our worth.
So, those appraisals can be very sticky. Malkoc and her colleagues’ work during the pandemic has found that the percentage of people who say that leisure is wasteful hasn’t changed in any significant way.
This doesn't result just from an individual’s point of view. "Hustle culture" doesn’t spring up from nowhere but from a long individualistic history paired with a lack of social support that helps enable a person to have free time without fear or guilt. Looking back at what some of America’s Founding Fathers said about leisure, it’s not a surprise that Americans often report that they find doing nothing during free time to be wasteful.
"Determine never to be idle," Thomas Jefferson said. "It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.” Or, "Leisure is the time for doing something useful," according to Benjamin Franklin. In a more contemporary example, consider how humans on the Axiom starliner, who seem to have lives of pure leisure, are portrayed in Wall-E: They don’t walk or engage in extracurricular activities, only stare at their screens, and are implied to be in poor physical health.
Malkoc doesn’t suggest trying to change your overall perspective on leisure overnight. It’s better to reframe individual leisure moments one by one, and try to think of them as beneficial—not a waste.
Still, this approach indicates there's a lot of work to be done disentangling the notions of productivity from activities that we find meaning in but aren't directed at some greater optimization goal.
In June, Krzysztof Pelc, an associate professor in the political science department at McGill University, wrote in The Atlantic that leisure is “in danger” from treating our time off as a means of furthering our productivity, and treating it as a life hack to be a better worker. “Leisure is useful—but only insofar as it remains leisure,” he wrote. “Once that time is viewed as a means to improve employee morale and higher growth, then leisure loses the very quality that makes it so potent.”
Ideally, we’d get to a point where people could explore their relationship with free time and what activities are meaningful to them, but not necessarily for the sake of optimization. Instead, free time could be for creative and purposeful pursuits, unrelated to our jobs, that could help leisure become an instrument to our happiness. We have to learn what those are for each of us individually.
The kinds of passive activities that we reach for at the end of a long day, vegging out in front of the TV or scrolling through TikTok, can have their place—but if we ever want to strive for a life with a greater number of leisure hours, those activities alone might not make us fulfilled, as the new research suggests.
The last extended period of time I had off was last year, when I used up my leftover vacation time and had over two weeks of leisure time. For the first couple of days, I did what I normally do in the scraps of spare time I have lying around: I watched TV and movies, slept a lot, and poked around online. But once that started to lose its appeal, I felt rested enough to access a whole slew of leisure activities that I love: listening to philosophy podcasts, painting, playing my keyboard, reading fiction, having extended coffee dates with friends, and doing long yoga videos.
This kind of interactive leisure conversation with yourself will elicit greater benefits, no matter how many hours of free time you have. “What are we truly looking for when we say we want more balance between work and life?” Hershfield said. “What do we mean when we say we want more time? How are we going to spend that time?” By asking ourselves such questions, we could eventually arrive at a sentiment that philosopher Josef Pieper managed to express succinctly: "Work is the means of life; leisure the end.”
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