Entrepreneurs Are Happier Because Autonomy and More Meaningful Work Matter More Than Stress and Workload

(p. R1) “If you look at the data, it turns out that entrepreneurs on average earn less money than a typical employed person, work 13 hours more a week and report that it’s a very stressful occupation,” says Boris Nikolaev, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “But despite that, there’s overwhelming evidence in the literature that entrepreneurs report significantly higher levels of job satisfaction.”

. . .

“Entrepreneurs are happier in terms of all indications (p. R4) of life satisfaction and work satisfaction,” says Ute Stephan, professor of entrepreneurship at King’s College London, who conducted a comprehensive review of more than 100 academic studies on entrepreneurship and well-being. “However, they might be more stressed than the rest of us, as well.”

This unusual mix of stress and happiness comes about, she says, because entrepreneurs tend to be deeply invested in their businesses, and their passion is a double-edged sword: It gives them a strong sense of purpose and autonomy, but it can also lead to worry, late nights, overwork and stress.

. . .

The stress and workload have a strong negative effect, as is evident in other studies, but the sense of doing something important and being their own boss is so gratifying that it outweighs all those negatives and leaves them happier overall.

“What they are doing is important to them, it’s part of who they are, it’s part of their identity, and that’s why it has such a positive impact on well-being,” says Prof. Stephan.

. . .

. . . in a recent study, Prof. Stephan discovered that autonomy alone isn’t enough. It’s important, to be sure—but what entrepreneurs need, above all, is meaning. She analyzed survey data from over 22,000 people in 16 European countries, comparing their feelings of happiness with the extent to which their work gives them a sense of meaning and autonomy.

. . .

She found that entrepreneurs experienced higher levels of happiness than wage-earning employees (4.37 vs. 4.28 on a scale of 1 to 6), as well as higher levels of meaning (4.56 vs. 4.25 on a scale of 1 to 5) and autonomy (2.66 vs. 1.95 on a scale of 0 to 3). Using regression analysis, she discovered that meaning was the decisive factor in entrepreneurial happiness.

“What we found is that much more important than decision-making freedom is the sense of doing something profoundly meaningful,” she says. “That really energizes you, and as an entrepreneur you really need that energy to be creative and to do the work that’s important to you.”

But finding meaning in work doesn’t have to be about changing the world. Framing work in terms of performing an important service can help even entrepreneurs in less glamorous industries find meaning and happiness—such as contractors who help people build a dream home, or accountants saving people from disastrous money problems.

For the full story, see:

Andrew Blackman. “Are Entrepreneurs Happier Than Other People?” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Nov. 04, 2021): R1 & R4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 3, 2021 , and has the title “Are Entrepreneurs Happier Than Everybody Else?”)

The comprehensive review by Prof. Stephan mentioned above is:

Stephan, Ute. “Entrepreneurs’ Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review and Research Agenda.” Academy of Management Perspectives 32, no. 3 (Aug. 2018): 290-322.

The recent study by Prof. Stephan mentioned above is:

Stephan, Ute, Susana M. Tavares, Helena Carvalho, Joaquim J. S. Ramalho, Susana C. Santos, and Marc van Veldhoven. “Self-Employment and Eudaimonic Well-Being: Energized by Meaning, Enabled by Societal Legitimacy.” Journal of Business Venturing 35, no. 6 (Nov. 2020): DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusvent.2020.106047.

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