The story so far
The Happier Lives Institute was formed in late 2018 by a group of committed individuals interested in the subjects of happiness, mental health and effective altruism. Our broad aim was to find the best ways to improve global happiness. Why happiness, or more broadly, well-being? When thinking about methods of ‘doing good’, it’s common to measure the impacts on people’s health or wealth and use these as proxies for life improvement. However, we think that health and wealth aren’t the only things that matter: they are valuable to the extent that they increase well-being. Although closely linked, it is people’s well-being, and not their health and wealth, which is intrinsically valuable.
Our early work has included a range of research projects, including the development of a screening tool to identify cost-effective mental health interventions in low and middle-income countries and initial thoughts on happiness-increasing careers. The team worked in their spare time as volunteers with Michael Plant directing while he finished his philosophy PhD. Justus Baumann became the part-time coordinator of HLI in April 2019.
This summer Michael took part in Charity Entrepreneurship’s Incubation Program in London. Charity Entrepreneurship aims to create high-impact charities, this year specifically working within the areas of global poverty and animal welfare. Their model is to identify cost-effective, evidence-based interventions through careful research, then to train and connect a group of potential charity entrepreneurs to found charities implementing these interventions.
13 people took part in the incubation program. The first month consisted of a training program with lectures and group project work. The program covered a wide range of topics useful to charity entrepreneurs, such as management, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation, communication and decision-making. During the second month, projects were started and their new co-founders were provided with continued guidance and support. The ongoing mentorship from the Charity Entrepreneurship team, as well as the group of charity entrepreneurs all working to set up new organisations, should be a very helpful support network for HLI in the future.
HLI was different to the other newly-founded organisations in that it didn’t fit in the two cause areas focussed on during the incubation program (global poverty and animal welfare). Sometimes HLI was labelled the ‘mental health’ project. It’s true that, if we look through the happiness lens, mental health sticks out as a big, unduly neglected issue. However, mental health isn’t the only problem that looks important on this approach. Global poverty looks important too and we plan to investigate the priorities for increasing global well-being.
Quite a few things have changed as a result of going through the program. Clare Donaldson, an ‘incubatee’, has joined the organisation as the Chief Operating Officer; Michael and Clare will run the organisation together. Clare’s background is in geophysics research and she has been involved in the effective altruism community since 2015. Any questions about the day-to-day running of HLI can be sent to her. Clare felt that HLI proposed a promising new approach to doing good and offered an effective way of working towards her goal of helping other people around the world.
The program also provided an ideal space for HLI to rethink our strategy and research approach. We generated a ‘long list’ of possible options for the types of organisation that HLI could be. Should we be a mental health policy think-tank? How about an organisation using mass media to promote well-being as a societal goal? Although the idea that focussing on well-being (rather than GDP, for example) is taking hold across many parts of the world (for example, see New Zealand’s well-being budget), applying a ‘happiness lens’ approach to how individuals and institutions can do good is still a relatively new idea. It therefore wasn’t obvious why we would choose one of these ‘direct-action’ organisations over another. Given this, we believe that it makes sense for HLI to be a ‘meta-’organisation; producing cross-cutting research useful to both individuals and organisations deciding where resources can be most usefully spent. We therefore ended up almost back where we started, but with a much better sense of why we had come up with this plan.
Prioritising our research agenda
What, exactly, should this research be, and what are the top priorities? There are a wide range of questions we could address related to:
(a) how and whether to use subjective well-being (SWB) as a measure of impact; and/or
(b) what the priorities are for individuals and organisations that want to make lives happier.
Over our first year we plan to make headway on some of (a), but also set out tentative suggestions regarding (b) in a number of areas: recommended charities, high priority career paths, new organisations/projects we’d like to see and new government policies. We expect that our theoretical research will inform our applied research, and vice versa. As a new organisation, we aren’t yet sure where we will have most impact, so we plan to learn as we go by testing out various avenues.
Theory of change: how our research has an impact. We’re expecting to just scratch the surface in our first year!
To help determine what research in this wide area would be most useful, we’re currently conducting a systematic review of our priorities in two stages. In the first stage, we’re consulting HLI’s stakeholders (individuals and organisations we think would, or could, be interested in our work) as well as leading academics working on or around subjective well-being. If you have any questions in mind that you think would be important for HLI to address, we’d really appreciate it if you filled out this short form. In the second stage, we’re sending out a list of research questions to those who may stand to benefit from our research and asking them to score the questions on importance.
In the next few months, we plan to settle on a prioritised research agenda and then hire one or two researchers to start making progress on it. Michael will continue to direct the organisation whilst continuing with his academic work – he joins Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre as a post-doctoral Research Fellow in October. If you have any feedback, or expertise that may be relevant for our research agenda, do get in touch! For updates, please sign up to our newsletter below.