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Want to avoid bad days? Manage someone else’s business, don’t start your own

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Business owners in developed countries report more life satisfaction, but more negative feelings.
By Sarah Kessler
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When it comes to avoiding bad days, running a business might pay better than owning one.

Since 2012, the World Happiness Report has ranked countries by “happiness levels,” which some suggest should be used, rather than GDP, to measure the success of a country. This year, the report, which is produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in partnership with the Ernesto Illy Foundation, also analyzed how work relates to happiness.

The analysis found, like many before it, that unemployed people are less happy and also, perhaps unsurprisingly, that those in well-paying jobs are happier and more satisfied with their lives and jobs. Blue-collar labor–work like construction, mining, manufacturing, transport, farming, fishing, and forestry–was also correlated with lower happiness (this was true even when the report’s authors controlled for income and education).

Among white-collar workers, however, those at the very top of the food chain weren’t necessarily the happiest workers. In every measure of happiness and job satisfaction analyzed in the report, using Gallup World Poll data, global business owners were worse off than professionals and managers and executives.

When asked to imagine a ladder to a perfect life, with the last, most perfect rung translating to a rating of “10,” global business owners placed themselves lower than their executive/manager and professional colleagues:

When asked to answer questions about positive experiences they’d had the day before, such as “Were you treated with respect all day?” and “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” global business owners scored lower than executive/manager and professionals:

When asked about negative experiences they’d had the day before (i.e. “Did you experience ‘worry’ during a lot of the day yesterday?”), global business owners scored higher than executive/managers and professionals:

When they were asked simply are you “satisfied” or “dissatisfied” with your job, more of them answered “dissatisfied” than did managers/executives and professionals.

“This surprised us a good deal,” says George Ward, who co-authored the chapter of the report on work and happiness. In a follow-up analysis, he found that, in most developed countries, the relationship between business ownership and happiness compared to other white-collar workers was different. Business owners rated their overall life satisfaction more highly than other professionals and executives, but were more likely to report negative day-to-day feelings. In developing countries, the definition of “business ownership” can be less clear, he says, which may account for the difference between the global and developed country results. “They find more purpose,” says Ward of business owners in developed countries, “But running a business is not easy.”

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