Sensei Tyra Seldon writes this week that self-employment leads to happiness . From her own experience, she endorses the finding.
She says that the study “captured what so many of us know to be true: Self-employment can also lead to happiness.”
She points out that self-employment provides many non-tangible rewards, including the personal satisfaction of doing good work. She also notes that her standards as an independent worker are higher than when employed.
This study identifies some of these factors, including autonomy and especially “engagement”. Seldon refers to these as the intangible benefits of self-employment, which are at least as important as productivity and income.
Looking at the study itself, it compares the responses of professionals who are employed as managers, non-managers, and self-employed .
The researchers indicate that many previous studies show that self-employed workers are more satisfied than conventional workers. This study goes further, to compare managers and non-managers, and to try to look at different aspects of “well being”. In particular, they look at engagement, challenge, and workers’ preferences.
The overall findings are that self-employed workers are generally more satisfied than employees, but that the biggest difference is between non-managerial employees and both managers and self-employed workers. (One interpretation would be that self-employees are their own manager, which carries the satisfaction of that role.)
Another interesting, if perhaps unsurprising, finding is that the misfit between preferences and job demands is lower for self-employed workers than for all but top managers. In general, self-employed workers are choosing work that suits them, and have the autonomy to make that choice effective.
This study is fairly careful, but there are caveats to bear in mind.
The data is from an on-line questionnaire. This means that these are verbal self-reports, which may or may not accurately reflect the feelings of the respondents. The questions were administered carefully, and there are no obvious biasing factors, but there is always question whether respondents are interpreting the questions and answers the same way. (For instance, just how meaningful are “average happiness” numbers, accumulated across multiple individuals reported “happiness”?)
A related challenge is that the sampling in this online study is rather opaque. It is difficult to know how representative the respondents may be. It is a pretty big sample, but we really don’t know who was left out. Some workers may be less likely to volunteer information on this survey, which could bias the results. For example, if discouraged, demoralized, or marginal workers are unrepresented, then the reported levels of satisfaction would be skewed.
This study did include a very large sample of managerial employees, which is important and often missing from studies of worker satisfaction.
The study reports the average age of the respondents to be around 40, though one wonders about the age distribution. But there is no longitudinal data here. How do these attitudes evolve over time?
Notably, the engagement and satisfaction increased with advancement in the organization, which surely correlates with longevity. And are non-managerial employees less engaged because they are new or because they don’t fit or because their ambitions have been disappointed?
In the case of self-employed workers, one wonders what time frame their responses represent. In the event they work from gig to gig, are they reporting the current or recent gigs, or multiple gigs over a longer period, or what? I have to wonder if concepts such as engagement or satisfaction mean the same thing to people in a long-term position, compared to short term. Engagement and satisfaction are probably not the same after several years in the same job as on the first day.
Finally, I’ll note that there are similar findings from the limited research about coworking: coworking seems to make workers happy. (this and see Chapter 6 and 7 of the new book “What is Coworking?”)
This study raises the possibility that coworking has nothing to do with happiness. Given that most coworkers are freelancers, it could be the case that freelancing makes workers happy, and the workspace doesn’t matter. I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis.
In the case of coworking, there is also a very strong selection bias in the studies. Dissatisfied coworkers stop coworking, and are almost never sampled. Reports that “coworking makes workers happy” must be taken with a grain of salt.
On the other hand, coworking spaces were invented to support independent workers. In particular, they offer social support that conventional employees find in their workplace. Therefore, it is very possible that self-employed workers who belong to a coworking space are even more satisfied than self-employed workers in general. I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis, either.
Self-employment may not suit everyone, all of the time.
Overall, I would say that this study is more evidence that self-employment, freelancing, and coworking make some workers happy, some of the time.
As Sensei Seldon explains, this has a lot to do with things like setting your own standards, that lead to a stronger personal engagement and motivation. For many freelancers, these psychological benefits even offset the uncertainty and financial struggles they may face.
- Tyra Seldon, A new study shows self-employment leads to happiness, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/04/18/a-new-study-shows-self-employment-leads-to-happiness/
- Peter Warr and Ilke Inceoglu, Work Orientations, Well-Being and Job Content of Self-Employed and Employed Professionals. Work, Employment and Society, 32 (2):292-311, 2018/04/01 2017. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017017717684