Business Owners Smile More…

…or at least that’s the message of Sue Shellenbarger’s column this morning in the Wall Street Journal.

According to a Gallup survey being released today, business owners outrank 10 other occupational groups in overall well-being, even though small business owners often struggle with extreme stress (e.g. meeting a payroll), have less access to comprehensive health insurance, and in the current recession and credit crunch are often really seeing their businesses struggle. Shellenbarger quotes John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as saying the survey “reaffirms my view that the more control you have over your work, the happier you are.”

There are some other studies that reaffirm this view as well. In 168 Hours, I cite extensively from work done by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School on creativity and productivity. The right job, she has noted, involves two key aspects.

First, it has to tap your internal motivations — that is, you like the stuff of the job for its own sake (Shellenbarger’s lead anecdote, about Roger Peugeot, a plumber, says he “genuinely likes fixing plumbing messes” and despite the recession says “I’m still excited to get up and go to work every day.”)

Second, it has to meet three key job conditions: you have to have lots of autonomy (control of day-to-day decisions), you have to be sufficiently challenged, and you have to have a supportive work environment.

It’s not hard to see why self-employment would maximize many of these conditions. In a huge corporation, pretty much everyone has a boss. If you’re running a small business, on the other hand, you really do decide, from day-to-day, how things run. And while you can certainly fail, you often feel more in control of this than if you are just one of 1000 people who can be laid off at a moment’s notice. As for challenge, working for yourself means you’re often handling almost everything — it’s hard not to be challenged! And while big companies can do many things to create a supportive work environment, it’s unclear why anyone else would design the perfect work environment for you. Various entrepreneurship experts have told me that self-employed folks often start businesses in order to create the kinds of companies they’d like to work for.

We spend a lot of our waking hours working. Generally not the bulk, but a lot nonetheless. If you’re not in a job that makes you happy, that’s a high proportion of your 168 hours to be writing off. While plenty of people do find organization jobs that make them happy, self-employment does make it somewhat easier to fit all the pieces together (even if there are  downsides, too).

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