The pursuit of happiness

The pursuit of happiness

Kayte Jenkins speaks to ‘happiness’ economist, Professor Martin Binder, about his new approach to improving mental health, wellbeing and life satisfaction of the self-employed

What is happiness? People spend their whole lives searching for happiness, and now a new report has found that you have a greater chance of finding it if you are self-employed.

Although the report, The Way to Wellbeing, commissioned by the Centre for Research on Self-Employment (CRSE), found self-employed people have a higher life satisfaction, it also showed that it is not a completely even picture.

The overall life satisfaction varies between the different self-employed groups, depending on how individuals came to be working for themselves, as well as working conditions.

So if self-employment is the way forward towards the pursuit of happiness, what can be done to ensure it is a positive experience for all involved?

Author of the report, Professor Martin Binder of Bard College Berlin, tells me: “The life of an academic in many ways compares to the self-employed lifestyle.” And having experienced various freelancing stints over the course of his career, Martin is all too aware of the conflicts that it creates for work-life balance.

Applying his expertise on wellbeing-happiness research, Martin presents a new, holistic approach to enhancing the wellbeing of the self-employed in his report. Rather than just using the conventional measure of economic success, he considers all aspects of life such as the job itself, income, health, the family situation and leisure to build an overall picture of satisfaction.

“I think our society, in many ways, has been fixated on income a lot more than we should. Of course, money is important, but it seems to me we tend to forget that other things matter a lot too,” the German born and bred professor says.

“A lot of policy making is done through this lens of ‘how does it make us richer?’, but what good is this, if it makes us lonelier and more depressed?

“There is a lot of evidence about how the high uncertainty, time pressures and long working hours that come with working for yourself can create stress and excessive worrying. Some of this can be due to a mismatch between the demands of the job and one’s skills and confidence.”

Martin, who has put forward 21 policy recommendations in his report, explains that often it is not always possible to change circumstances, therefore it is important to see what can done to help people better deal with such challenging situations.

“That’s where my recommendations for better and easier access to confidence building, stress and time management training and mentoring for the self-employed come in.”

“Stress can be combatted in different ways. Not everyone has enough savings to reduce their hours or take a break from work when things become stressful. But there is a whole toolbox of things that can help improve our quality of life and build coping mechanisms to help deal with stress.

“Techniques which use relaxation exercises or interventions aimed at avoiding thinking about the business demands outside of clearly defined times is just one example.”

There are also things the government could do, such as emergency mentoring. Martin suggests that having someone to simply call or email and get feedback from can help either solve the issue or at least reduce the stress.

Many solo self-employed people lack the social interaction that comes with standard forms of working life. Martin deals with isolation in his report by proposing the government, co-operatives and professional organisations work together to incentivise the creation of more co-working spaces.

He explains: “Not only do co-working spaces help combat the sense of isolation, it also provides an opportunity for freelancers to pool together and share resources. These social interactions play an important role in how we experience our jobs and lives, and in turn, how happy we are with them.

“Co-working spaces do exist but many people either don’t know that or inertia stands in the way of becoming a part of one of these self-employed communities. The government can help by automatically putting self-employed people in touch with mentors and co-working communities when they register their business, offer tax breaks, and create more work hubs.”

Speaking about his quest for understanding what makes people happy, Martin hopes his report will influence policymakers and business leaders alike to “change [their] attitudes towards wellbeing”.

This can be achieved by “looking at the impact self-employment has on different aspects of life such as health, social aspects and work-life balance, then tailoring policies and interventions that help to improve people’s lives in these areas”, which go beyond just the financial domain and growth.

And as Martin puts it: “This makes self-employment a pathway through which people can achieve greater levels of happiness and life satisfaction.”

Download the report here