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What makes MBA students happy? Hint: It’s not money

Students in business school are learning a lesson that is far more valuable that even the most insightful case study can teach – that an MBA degree can bring happiness but not because it offers access to wealth, riches and power.

This stunning revelation came in 2013, when, a portal that covers the top 50 business schools, conducted a study that surveyed 1,108 students from 12 of the world’s leading business schools. The portal came up with a Happiness Index that pegged ‘happiness’ on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 was ‘extremely unhappy’ and 10 was ‘extremely happy’.

For the students surveyed, the results pegged the Happiness Index at 5.98 pre-MBA; 7.71 during the MBA program, and 8.53 post-MBA. In other words, there was a clear 25 per cent jump in terms of how happy the students were from the time they enrolled for an MBA program, to completing it.

Now here’s the eye-opener. The most fascinating aspect of the study was that the rise in ‘happiness levels’ did not correlate with money – something we usually associate with an MBA degree or the earning potential and corporate status that such a degree can bring.


Self-Growth Most Valued

When interpreting the data, the study found that 42 per cent of the respondents said the ‘self-development’ they experienced during their MBA program was the single-most important factor contributing to their ‘happiness’. This finding corroborates the well-known fact that MBA programs facilitate huge personal growth as they encourage students to push the envelope, discover new facets to their personalities, dig deep and plumb personal depths they never knew existed. Apart from the extremely exacting nature of the curriculum itself, the program also gives MBA students access to extra-curricular opportunities that can lead to ‘self-development’.

The MBA experience is enriching in yet another way. It introduces you to fellow colleagues, faculty, potential business partners and thought leaders that make for a very rewarding experience. Many report that the network they build around themselves contributed to personal enrichment and growth.

According to the study, the second-most important factor contributing to ‘happiness’ was ‘career progression’ (19 per cent), followed by the ‘pleasure of learning’ (11.6 per cent) and ‘developing a network’ (9.3 per cent).

One would assume that raging ambition, climbing the corporate ladder, competing with peers, honing one’s intellect and developing new skill sets would be top priority for MBA students. And they are critically important; only, they do not make students ‘happy’. What was important was learning, growing, engaging with people and the prospect of their careers blossoming, the study suggests.

Money vs Meaning

And here’s the clincher – on the Happiness Index, ‘financial reward’ scored a lowly 2.7 per cent!

Putting a perspective to these findings is Stephan Chambers, former MBA Program Director at Oxford University’s Said Business School. “There is now a significant body of research into what makes us happy. And one of the things about which there’s a broad consensus is that ‘meaning’ (or values, or community, or empathy, or engagement with the public good) correlates strongly with peoples’ reported happiness.”

Sceptics would call the ‘Happiness Index’ just so much humbug, pointing out that being accepted into an MBA program would naturally make one ‘happy’. Why wouldn’t it? After all, it’s much the same as achieving one’s other ambitions or goals, like, say, getting married or taking a life-altering trip to Antarctica.


Entrepreneurs Are Happiest?

But here’s a study the sceptics can’t argue with. A study conducted by professors of the Wharton School of Business in 2012 found a strong correlation between happiness and entrepreneurship, even if the entrepreneurial venture in question wasn’t particularly successful. The study included 11,000 graduates of the Wharton MBA program, a mixed group that comprised individuals who were working in the banking, consulting and financial services sectors. Around 20 per cent of respondents were running their own businesses, at some point in their respective careers.

Sure, the findings suggest that the more money one earned, the happier they were but the surprising finding was that MBA graduates running their own businesses reported greater happiness levels than those in other professions, regardless of how much money they earned – only 56 per cent of the of the respondents surveyed had made a profit when running their own ventures.

Contrary to the hype that surrounds start-ups, most entrepreneurs are not hotshots drowning in venture capital. Most of them are small start-ups just getting by. Yet, the lack of financial success did not seem to deter them from being happy.

Perhaps the second finding could explain the first one – that former MBA grads running their own businesses also rated themselves higher than any other profession when it came to work-life balance. According to Ethan Mollick, one of the lead authors of the study, regardless of how gruelling it is being an entrepreneur, entrepreneurs believe they have better control over their own time.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, that’s precisely the point – bottom lines and bank balances obviously matter but they don’t really make people happy. It’s finally a question of choice – choosing success to the exclusion of all else or choosing success with a generous dose of ‘happy’.

Read these related articles:
Are you really happy?
Is your work life balance suffering?
MBA startups from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Wharton rake in millions


References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

4 thoughts on “What makes MBA students happy? Hint: It’s not money”

  1. Hi Sameer, thanks for sharing data that helps me convince the reverberating reasons in my head. The reason why I want to take up this path. I shared these with others(friends and family) and have been more often frowned upon.
    I am earning enough to have my needs met, have a somewhat work-life balance, have been able to put my head and heart into whatever I want to, a supportive life partner. All that said, the strongest reason to pursue MBA dream remains to have wider learning together with multi cultural peers, soak more of it afterwards and somehow(i don’t know yet how)in the process do jugaad for atleast one (may be more, who knows) of the ever impeding problems around us.

  2. Shubham: The definition of happiness varies for each individual. For someone it might be just the salary, and nothing wrong with that. For others it may be the freedom that comes with starting their own business. Or maybe completely unrelated to what surveys (like the one above) can capture.

    Everyone judges others’ decision based on their own yardsticks. So, disconnects are inevitable.

    Trying to change the perception of everyone around you isn’t important (or even practical). But it is still important to spend time convincing those closest to you about your decisions, since they may be genuinely concerned and stressed out.

  3. True. Closest one are the only ones that matter. family(read: parents, sibling, spouse) usually support you even if they don’t exactly understand what you up to. That is good but that doesn’t clear your self doubt which might clinch you from time to time. This is where friends come in. Friends , well, somehow in the process of growing up, change happens, we grow our different lenses and see a different view. Lucky are folks who still have around someone who shares more of their thought process. Someone you can get advice from and flush out that self doubt.

    I think this is where honest consultants come in. They fill the void. Something that reminds me of MBA crystalball.

  4. Most of the students studying in top 50 bschools of the world come from well family background.
    Their family earn enough, that is how they can afford the sky high fees of these institutions.
    It is crystal clear then, that money is not the main aim of those aspirants(as they already have much of that). That is why, they gave low points to finance….


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