Thanks to the bravery of members of the startup community in talking about the issue and the excellent work of a handful of journalists (including some Inc.com colleagues), the issue of mental health and entrepreneurship has been getting much more attention lately.

That's great news for founders who previously felt alone with their struggles, but all the coverage can also create the impression that starting a business is pretty brutal for your health and happiness. Starting a business, you might conclude, could make you rich, but there's also a good chance it will make you miserable (and sick).

But here's the good news: that's actually not what research on the subject reveals. While there are clearly some entrepreneurs who suffer with mental illness (and their experiences are well worth discussing openly), science says that on average entrepreneurs are happier and healthier than employees.

Business owners are healthier.

I discovered this cheerful fact when I stumbled across an interesting post about entrepreneur's physical health from blogger and entrepreneur James Clear recently. In it, he recalls how a physician friend pointed him in the direction of a study out of Baylor University and Louisiana State University.

Researchers there "discovered an interesting trend by combining data from the Center for Disease Control and the US Census. What they found was that... as the number of small businesses increased, the health of the surrounding community improved," Clear explains. "For example, Summit County in Colorado (where there is an incredibly high number of small business) had a mortality rate, obesity rate, and diabetes rate that were each less than half of the national average."

This is just one study though, so Clear was curious if other scientists had found a similar trend. He set out on a personal research project to confirm or deny that entrepreneurship, despite it's much discussed stresses, is actually good for your health. His conclusion: it is. Entrepreneurs, it turns out, have a significantly lower incidence of physical and mental illnesses, visit the hospital less often, and report higher levels of life satisfaction.

Happiness is being your own boss.

That last finding about life satisfaction raises an interesting question: if entrepreneurs are, on average, healthier, are they also happier? A quick search reveals evidence that, despite the uncertainties of starting up, entrepreneurs on the whole actually report higher mental well being than those comfortably ensconced in a steady job.

When Wharton surveyed some 11,000 graduates about their happiness levels, for instance, they found that, contrary to the old saying, money can buy happiness -- to some degree. Those making more were generally more satisfied with their lives. But earnings were definitely not the biggest predictor of happiness. Entrepreneurship was. Those running their own businesses were the happiest of the grads, no matter how much money they made.

"We were surprised that entrepreneurship was such a dominant factor," Wharton management professors Ethan Mollick, who participated in the research, commented.

Want to be happy like an entrepreneur? Think like one.

Why were founders so much more cheerful than those who went into banking or finance, despite generally earning less? Mollick believes that control and autonomy have a lot to do with it. "Entrepreneurs are working really hard," he says. "But there's a sense that they have control over their own time, even if they're putting in a huge number of hours."

Clear makes a similar observation. "The feelings of empowerment and self-confidence that come from entrepreneurship find their way into virtually every area of your life," he believes.

Which brings him around to making an important point about this line of research. While it's a nice corrective to know that the stresses of entrepreneurship probably won't necessarily tank your health and happiness, it's also important to note that these findings aren't just a good reason for founders to gloat.

By acting to control their time and destiny as much as possible, employees can reap some of the same benefits as entrepreneurs. You don't have to be an entrepreneur to think like an entrepreneur, in other words, and if you do that, you should see a boost to your mental and physical health.

"Whether you're working a regular job or blazing your own path, the important thing is to discover the empowering mindset that entrepreneurs so often display," Clear concludes.

Do these research findings jive with your personal observations -- are entrepreneurs happier and healthier than employees, on average?

Published on: May 23, 2017