How to be a happy entrepreneur

Patricia Hempl has written The Art of the Wasted Day.In it, she posits that the founding fathers didn’t do us a favor when they charged us with the pursuit of happiness. Psychologists, authors and philosophers, you see, have been telling us for 2000 years that the first and most important key to finding happiness may be the most difficult for many people (especially those reading this article): To find happiness you must not seek it! In other words, the more you try to find happiness, the more it will elude you. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) said it best, “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity under conditions of uncertainty with the goal of creating user defined value through the deployment of innovation using a VAST business model. Entrepreneurs do it for many reasons. However, if you think the pursuit of opportunity is a way to find happiness, you will be disappointed if you are doing it the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Practicing some intentional behaviors may help happiness find you:

  1.  Sense of Purpose and Fulfillment. Commonly people believe that a life of leisure provides happiness. They believe that if they had plenty of money, didn’t need to work and could play all day, they would be happy. And yet studies of truly happy people show that they often have a high commitment to goals and a sense of purpose driving their lives. They want meaning and purpose and fulfillment and, the positive benefits come from a country that is moving away from standardization and has a more diverse, creative knowledge economy where new ideas, where creativity, where innovation is harnessed.
  2. Affiliation and Service to Others. Our relationships to others is a strong factor in overall level of happiness. As Epicurus stated over 2000 years ago “Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.” However, the way that we affiliate may differ according to personality style. Outgoing individuals may be more interactive with many people, whereas introverted folks may be content with one or two relationships. Some people may find sense of purpose in their service to others whereas others are content with socializing.
  3. Philosophical Perspective. How we frame the world and our experiences within it influence our degree of happiness. Those who tend to be more optimistic about creating positive outcomes are more likely to engage in active problem-solving and to be more content. However, this does not mean being unrealistic in assessing outcomes which can be detrimental (as discussed below in the section on emotional tolerance). Innovation starts with the right mindset.
  4. Resilience: Most problems are worsened by the inability to tolerate emotions.
  5.  Self-Contentment. Research shows that happier people tend to have greater self-confidence and belief in their abilities. People become entrepreneurs because they think they can do things better than others and they don’t want to work for someone else. Success does not lead to happiness. Happiness leads to success.
  6. Choice. Happier people believe not only generally in their ability to control their experience in life but also specifically in their ability to choose to be happy. “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times (Aeschylus, 525-456BC).” The single biggest reason for job stress and burnout is the lack of control. You choose whether or not to regain that control.
  7.  Health Behaviors. Researchers find as important as personality variables are to happiness, health behaviors are of even greater importance.
  8. Making happiness a habitHere are some entrepreneurial habits that will help you get from said to done.
  9. Avoiding social contagion: Stay away from toxic people. Follow the no asshole rule.
  10. Practice creative boredom and other forms of creativity. Here are some tips on how to cultivate creativity.
  11. Take the online Yale happiness class.
  12. Make these things a habit
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Starting a business doesn’t make most people rich, but it makes plenty of people happy.

Despite dismal failure rates, long hours, low income, high stress levels and a host of other problems, entrepreneurs report consistently higher rates of happiness than wage-earning employees. All of those problems do take away from entrepreneurs’ happiness, of course—but the positives of running a business are so strong that they outweigh the negatives.

The happier people are, the more likely they are to later find employment and be satisfied with it. One study found that graduating college students who were happier than their peers were more likely to receive follow-up job interviews three months later. Another study found that happy 18-year-olds were more likely to be working in prestigious careers, satisfied with their work, and feel more financially secure eight years later. Other longitudinal research suggests that happy people are less likely to lose their jobs and more likely to find a new job if they do become unemployed.

Moreover, employees who initially report high levels of well-being report higher productivity two months later, greater social support 20 months later, and better supervisor evaluations five years later. It also appears that earlier happiness pays subsequent financial dividends. People who are happy at one time point often report higher income at a later time point. Overall, the longitudinal literature suggests that happiness heralds success, rather than the other way around.

While the news can be grim, now is a good time to practice and develop The Happiness Advantage.:

  1. Be positive
  2. Change your mindset
  3. See possibilities
  4. Learn from failure
  5. Create small wins
  6. Gradually replace bad habits with good ones
  7. Build your internal and external networks

Then, observe the social contagion from those who catch your positive attitudes and behaviors.

There are many perfectly good ways to “waste” your life by giving up the pursuit of happiness. Fly fishing is one. Entrepreneurship is another if you do it for the right reasons without expectations.

Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA is the President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs on Twitter@SoPEOfficial and Facebook