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Yearning for free time? Too much of it could take a toll on your mental well-being

Apparently, the sweet spot for extra free time is about three and a half hours per day.

The more free time, the better, right? Not necessarily, researchers say.

A new study finds that people may be just as unhappy with “too much” free time as they are with too little.

Apparently, the sweet spot for extra free time is about three and a half hours per day. As the amount extends beyond that, however, the benefits to well-being decline and, at around seven hours, the extra free time starts making people feel bad, according to the study, published Thursday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“We find that there is an upside down U-shaped relationship between free time and happiness,” said the study’s lead author, Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. “If there is too little, people are less well off than if there is a moderate amount, because they feel a lot of stress because there is not enough time to do the things they want to do. The more interesting thing is that having too much free time is also associated with lower levels of well-being and happiness.”

Of course, simply having a lot of free time isn’t necessarily harmful, especially if people are happy with the amount of time they have and enjoy how it’s spent.

“How you spend the free time matters a lot,” Sharif said. “If you use the discretionary time productively, that can make you feel accomplished, fulfilled.”

The new study looked at free time from several angles. First, the researchers analyzed data from 21,736 Americans who participated in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey between 2012 and 2013. Those participants provided a detailed account of what they did during the previous 24 hours and reported on their sense of well-being. The analysis showed that initially, as free time increased, so did people’s sense of well-being. But well-being and happiness started to level off at around two hours and then to decline around five hours. Results from a different survey bolstered those findings.

With this information, Sharif and her colleagues then performed two experiments. In the first, 2,250 participants, recruited online, were randomly assigned to imagine having a certain amount of free time — 15 minutes a day, three and a half hours per day or seven hours a day — for at least six months. They were then asked to report the extent to which they would experience enjoyment, happiness and satisfaction.

Participants in both the low and high free time groups said they’d imagine feeling worse off, mentally, than those in the moderate free time group. Those in the low free time group said they would anticipate more stress than the moderate free time group; those in the high free time group said they’d feel less productive than those in the moderate group.

In the second experiment, the researchers asked another 5,000 participants to imagine having either three and a half or seven hours of free time per day, as well as how they would feel if they were spending that free time in either productive or unproductive activities. Those in the high free time group said they’d feel lower levels of well-being compared to the moderate free time group if they were to be engaging in unproductive activities, but those imagining they were engaged in productive activities expected to feel a similar amount of well-being whether they were in the high or moderate free time groups.

The new paper is “really interesting, but seems counterintuitive,” said J. Kim Penberthy, the Chester F. Carlson professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and coauthor of “Living Mindfully Across the Lifespan: An Intergenerational Guide.”

“I do a lot of mindfulness research and we are often really advocating for people to slow down and see the benefits of down time, so this was a little antithetical to that,” she said. “There are health benefits to having free time to breathe and let our minds wander.”

Penberthy, who was not involved with the study, noted that the findings don’t necessarily extend to everyone: “Maybe there is someone who, because of their personality and their life circumstances, is uncomfortable being alone. They get bored and find that unpleasant. But I don’t think that means it’s true for all humans.”

Another limitation, she said, is that the findings are based on people imagining how they would feel; what these people might do and feel in reality could be quite different.

Sharif acknowledged that this is a limitation, but noted that previous research has suggested that imagined experiences, like the ones used in the study, can be a good stand in for real life experiences.

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