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People think they want more free time, but they really want this
Research shows that people routinely say they wish they had more free time to do the things they want. But a researcher writes in The New York Times that free time doesn't matter if you don't have more of this. - photo by Lois M Collins
People routinely say they wish they had more free time to do the things they want, lamenting the brevity of the typical weekend. But a researcher writes in The New York Times Gray Matter column that it's not really a problem of not having enough time to play or relax or pursue personal joys.

When you peel away the layers, according to Cristobal Young, an assistant professor at Stanford University, what people really need is more time that coincides with that of their favorite people, from family to friends, in order to do enjoyable things together.

He bases the notion on research he and a colleague, Chaeyoon Lim from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did a few years ago. Their study was published in the journal Sociological Science in 2014.

They compared the weekend "emotional well-being" of those who work and those who are unemployed, noting that both groups reported a 15 percent bump in satisfaction with life on the weekends. That led them to conclude that "time is a network good: its value depends on the number of social others who have the same schedule of time available."

The key, the two found, is that "social time increases sharply on weekends for both workers and the unemployed. Weekend well-being is not due to time off work per se but rather is a collectively produced social good stemming from widely shared free time on weekends. The unemployed gain comparatively little benefit from their time off during the week, when others go to work."

Or, as Young wrote for The Times, "its not just that we have a shortage of free time; its also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones. We face a problem, in other words, of coordination. Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own."

A news release written at the time of the initial study said the results reflected findings from "study of 500,000 Americans in the Gallup Daily Poll and eight years of data from the American Time Use Survey."

Explained Young, "Monday to Friday offers five days when the unemployed are off work by themselves, searching job ads, doing household chores and so on. While the jobless have free time during the week, their friends and family still have to go to work. The weekend is when the jobless fall back into sync with society.

"The weekend, then, is not just a respite from work, but also gives similar relief from unemployment. It is a time when people can get what theyve been missing: time together," said Young.

The earlier release quoted him on the devastating impact unemployment has on well-being.

"People feel a deep need to be able to account for their lives, and unemployment takes that away from them in a fundamental way. Ironically, the jobless need a weekend experience much more than workers do."

Other studies have noted the value of free time on the weekends and why it's more than just having time off that matters, but rather time off when other people also have that time off.

A July 2011 Bureau of Economic Research working paper by John F. Helliwell and Shun Wang found "no day-of-week effect for life evaluations but significantly more happiness, enjoyment and laughter, and significantly less worry, sadness and anger on weekends (including public holidays) than on weekdays."

They cited what they called social context: "A large portion of the weekend effects is explained by differences in the amount of time spent with friends or family between weekends and weekdays (7.1 vs. 5.4 hours)."

That it's not just a matter of time off work is also clear to Edward E. Lawler III, a Forbes contributor who wrote about the overall time off work think vacation not just weekends.

"There is nothing about most work that makes it exhausting, dissatisfying and non-rewarding. In fact, it can be just the opposite. What organizations need to give individuals is flexibility with respect to when and what they work on, and to be sure that the work itself is rewarding, satisfying and in tune with what individuals value. More vacation time cannot make work more satisfying or rewarding. Indeed, for some individuals, it may make life less satisfying and rewarding."

Apparently, some working Americans agree. As Fortune's Anne Fisher pointed out last summer, "No doubt about it, Europeans think were crazy. Compared to people living in France, Germany and Scandinavia, who routinely take as much as six weeks off annually, U.S. employees typically leave about 429 million paid vacation days on the table every year."
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