Many people think being more successful in life means climbing the career ladder and making more money. But when Harvard scientists crunched data on more than 100,000 Americans they found that, beyond the point of reasonable comfort, running faster on the hamster wheel, didn't actually make people happier.

What did? In short, more time. If people traded a little bit of money -- either in the form of working less or paying for services that gave them more free time -- they were happier.

That is an interesting finding in our frenetic modern world where the answer to just about every "How ya doin'?" is "Slammed." But it also raises another important point. More free time is great, but too much free time is also a bad thing. Science and common sense tell us that people who sit around all day feel unfulfilled, discontent, and downright bored.

So where's that Goldilocks point, the perfect amount of free time to have to maximize your happiness? Another new study, as yet unpublished, claims to answer that question. And the results suggest that the optimum amount of free time is actually pretty doable.

The magic amount of free time for maximum happiness  

Cassie Mogilner Holmes, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, and a team of collaborators analyzed data on how 35,000 Americans use their time and view their lives. After crunching the numbers a straightforward pattern emerged.

They "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," reports The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker. If you have more free time on your hands, your happiness is likely to go down.

The study wasn't designed to figure out exactly why this might be so, though a handful of experts offer speculations in Pinsker's piece, from one theory that if you have more free time than everyone else you're going to be pretty lonely spending it to the idea that more than the magic number starts to make you feel like a lazy layabout.

An entirely reachable goal

Whatever the reason for this number, a singular fact remains: most Americans already exceed it. The latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual Time Use Survey, which asks a sample of Americans to keep a detailed diary of how they use their time, show on average we spend 2.5 hours a day just watching TV. Mix in other leisure activities and the average American has a whopping five hours a day of free time.

Let me guess, you're shocked and highly skeptical of these numbers. After all, the media (including here on Inc.com) is packed with stories about how time crunched we all are. How on earth could these statistics be right?

One factor, of course, is that different groups keep different schedules. Thanks to various economic and workplace shifts, successful white collar professionals are working crazier hours than ever before, so it's no shock that media types, who generally run in these circles, think that everyone is slammed. And as any parent of a newborn can tell you, five minutes of free time a day is more realistic than five hours.

But even with these caveats, the gap between how much free time we say we have and how much we really have is striking. As is the chasm between our sense of being time poor and the research showing we actually have the leisure time we need to live our best lives.

Why we feel slammed even when we're not 

What explains these disparities? Time use experts offer a couple of theories. Author Laura Vanderkam, for instance, suggests the problem is often that we're not thoughtful enough about our free time. Making more active and intentional use of our hours would make them count for more. If you fritter away your free time mindlessly scrolling Facebook, in other words, it's not a huge shock that you're going to end up wishing you had more of it.

Business psychologist Tony Crabbe, meanwhile, insists that part of the problem is our hyper-awareness of time. By always trying to slice and dice time to maximize productivity we're making ourselves constantly conscious of the ticking clock. We end up feeling frantic.

The exact mix of reasons for feeling time poor probably vary by the person (and a few of us are actually time poor, though statistically speaking it's unlikely you're one of them), but the central takeaway of all this science and expert advice remains constant -- you probably have all the time you need to be happy. It's your mindset and your behavior that needs an adjustment more than your schedule.

Published on: Mar 13, 2019
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