We can end up with a lot more free time than we know what to do with during a coronavirus lockdown or when social distancing restrictions are in place. We might binge-watch TV shows, connect with loved ones online, catch up on reading and rest – or do nothing at all.
That’s good news for people who are constantly on the go – studies show that having discretionary hours during the day can lower our stress levels and make us happier.
Shanti Sadhwani is the owner of a home-based creative communications consultancy in Hong Kong, and her days are usually filled with meetings and liaisons with clients.
Since the start of the pandemic, she has been able to do more of what she wants – she unwinds at home or at the nail salon, exercises, listens to podcasts, takes her dog to the park, watches television, enjoys meals with her family and cooks with her husband.
It is very different to how Sadhwani used to spend her free time when she was younger. “I’d sleep or watch television all day and just be, as I called it, a lemon,” says the 29-year-old, who was born in the United States but has lived in Hong Kong almost all her life.
“It was a passive experience because I wasn’t doing anything with a sense of purpose. I just went with the flow. These days, my schedule is full, but when I’m not working or hanging out with my family, I’m doing fun, meaningful and purposeful activities and tasks.”
According to research published in September 2021 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, free time is good for our mental health (too little results in greater stress and lower subjective well-being) but too much can impact us negatively as well.
The study’s lead author, Marissa Sharif from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the US, says that people often complain about being too busy and wanting more time.
Sharif and her team analysed two sets of data from tens of thousands of people. In the first set, they found that as free time increased, so did well-being.
This levelled off at about two hours and began to decline after five. In the second set, they noted that higher levels of free time were significantly associated with higher levels of well-being – but only up to a point.
The researchers also found that people who had a moderate amount of free time enjoyed a greater sense of well-being than those with low or high levels of free time. People who engaged in productive activities like working out, hobbies or running also reported higher levels of well-being compared to those who engaged in unproductive activities such as watching television or using the computer.
“Doing nothing when you have free time – and the boredom that comes with it – can be beneficial because it helps your brain recharge,” says Reema Khanna, a counsellor and the clinical director at Breathe Counselling in Hong Kong.
“Watching television and scrolling through social media, for example, are mindless activities that we do on autopilot. They don’t require much attention and our unconscious mind tends to dominate while we’re doing them.
“Our brain is on autopilot for about 50 per cent of the day; this helps it maintain its efficacy. But the downside of being on autopilot for too long is that it allows negative thoughts to take over our mind.
“It’s normal and natural to have negative thoughts – they help us assess risk and benefit, for instance – but when we have too many it can feel exhausting, and this may affect our emotional well-being.”
Khanna adds that negative thoughts might include things such as, “I’m not working as effectively at home as I would in the office” or “I feel guilty for having binge-watched a series last night instead of going to bed early”.
“It’s important to find a balance between boredom and stimulation, in particular mental, physical and cognitive stimulation, for better emotional health,” she says.
Your downtime may consist of “mindless” activities that conserve your mental energy, balanced with activities like physical exercise; connecting with people online or in person; mindfulness practices like journaling or cooking a special meal; reading; doing an online course or listening to a talk; painting; gardening; and anything that challenges your mind.
For Sadhwani, having a busy job and personal life and finding meaning in everything she does – even writing shopping lists and planning meals – are key to enjoying every day and part of a fulfilling life.
“Between my job, family commitments and social life I don’t really have a lot of extra time to waste, so when I do have some downtime, I try to use it wisely,” she explains. “Of course, mindless activities are a part of it because they help me unwind, but I’m conscious about how much time I allocate to them.
“Mindless social media scrolling , for example, can be fun and helps me ‘tune out’, but too much of it can create a feeling of lack, which I find disempowering. It doesn’t benefit me, so I don’t spend hours on it.
“I’d rather spend my downtime doing things that nourish my soul, allow me to develop as a person and bring me closer to my loved ones.
“Time is precious; I don’t want to regret having wasted my free time on activities that didn’t add to my personal growth or improved my well-being in some way.”