A few weekends ago, I ran into a New York Times Op-Ed entitled, "You Don't Need More Free Time" by one of the authors of a study on happiness and free time, [Time as a Network Good:
Evidence from Unemployment and the Standard Workweek][time-as-a-network-good]. The study says that it's the timing of free time, not the amount that matters. At least, that is what matters when they measure the sense of well-being among the unemployed. This matches some other findings from happiness research: spending time with people you like is a major source of happiness.
I can appreciate that last part. I've been unemployed or employed with a non-standard schedule during the past few years. I look forward to picking up Marlon from school or work, even if we aren't planning on doing anything together. In the future, until I have my own family, I look forward to still having roommates that I like. I don't like big parties, and I like having a lot of time to pursue my own interests. But living alone sounds like a breeding spot for depression.
Organizations probably want to know how the structure of the workweek affects the mood of employees. Institutions want to know how it affects the jobless, and if the jobless are happier taking welfare rather than seeking work--and this piece of research says no.
All this gets limited for me, personally, because this research doesn't measure the time dimension. To me, free time means choice. It means a chance to pursue skills. You can use the time to support and improve the lives of others. No one actually has more or less time--instead, different people have different degrees of choice about how to use the time. You can spend the time to feel happier today and maybe tomorrow, or you can invest it. And there are other investments than simply exchanging your hours and days for a wage or salary. Why the false dilemma?
It could be that we're not that great at making choices about how to spend our time. If free time is more choice, could too many choices hurt us? That is a much more complicated, interesting, and less measurable question.
But if we want to navigate life for ourselves, if we seek to find our own way off the clear, well labelled routes, we can't afford to bet against choice. Choice, and thus time is precious to us. With the right bets: time gets experience, time gets skill, time gets opportunity. We can have too much of almost anything else. Time is on our side. As much as you can, keep it healthy, keep it invested wisely, or at least keep it free.