August update

3 August 2020

We’ve made a lot of progress over the last three months, and we’re excited to share our latest research with you in this post. We hope you’re happy and healthy wherever you are in the world!


Mental Health Programme Evaluation Project

In June, we published an update on our Mental Health Programme Evaluation Project. After initial evaluations of 76 programmes listed on the Mental Health Innovation Network website, we have identified 25 programmes for further evaluation.

We presented our latest findings at the EAGxVirtual conference, followed by a Q&A session:


Estimating moral weights using subjective well-being

In order to compare the cost-effectiveness of interventions, it is necessary to assess the value of different outcomes such as averting deaths, increasing wealth, reducing depression, or improving education.

The cost-effectiveness analysis used by GiveWell, a charity evaluator that searches for the world’s best giving opportunities, includes two key outcomes: doubling someone’s consumption for one year and averting a death of a child under the age of 5. GiveWell refers to the relative value of these two outcomes as its ‘moral weights’.

In a post on the Effective Altruism Forum, we demonstrate how to (re)estimate these moral weights using an alternative method, Well-being Adjusted Life Years, or ‘WELLBYs’. One WELLBY, in our analysis, is equivalent to a one-point increase in life satisfaction on an 0-10 scale for one person for one year e.g. taking someone from 7/10 to 8/10 for one year.

While there are nascent attempts to use WELLBYs in high-income country policy-making (1, 23), we believe this is the first attempt to apply the method to low-income contexts. Our primary aim is to show that the WELLBY approach could be used, rather than that it should be used. Our estimate of the relative value of the two outcomes should be taken as preliminary rather than definitive. We note how it is sensitive to various philosophical assumptions and set out directions for further work, such as assessing WELLBYs in terms of happiness rather than life satisfaction.

Read our full analysis 


Satisfaction and its discontents

In a new working paper, Michael Plant investigates the nature and plausibility of life satisfaction theories of well-being. Well-being refers to what is ultimately good for us, what makes our lives go well. Philosophers generally hold there are three credible accounts of well-being (hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories). The view that life satisfaction is what ultimately matters has not received much attention within philosophy but is usually understood as a distinct fourth alternative. This lack of attention is unfortunate, particularly because of the increasing use of measures of subjective well-being (SWB) – reports of happiness, life satisfaction, and purpose. Among SWB researchers, mainly economists and psychologists, life satisfaction is taken as of primary importance.

Michael first argues that life satisfaction theories are best understood as a type of desire theory in disguise, rather than a distinct fourth theory. He then raises two major objections and concludes life satisfaction theories are implausible. The paper doesn’t argue for a theory of well-being, but rather highlights serious and unrecognised problems with the view that life satisfaction is what ultimately matters. It’s worth noting that, even if life satisfaction scores aren’t the ideal measure of well-being, one can still think they are a useful proxy measure of it – we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Read the full paper


What we’re reading

Wellbeing Adjusted Life Years
Happiness Research Institute

A recent report from the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark explores the concept of the Wellbeing Adjusted Life Year. The report begins by comparing the effects of different health conditions and health symptoms in terms of WELLBYs and goes on to advocate for the metric to be applied as a universal key performance indicator that can be used across different domains of life.

Poverty, Depression, and Anxiety: Causal Evidence and Mechanisms
Ridley et al., 2020

In this paper, Ridley et. al. investigate why people living in poverty are disproportionately affected by mental illness. The authors review the evidence that poverty causes common mental health problems – depression and anxiety – and vice versa. They discuss various mechanisms for the bi-directional relationship. For example, they discuss how worries and uncertainty that come with living in poverty seem to be an important driver of mental health conditions. In the other direction, there are many experiments showing a causal effect of treating mental illness on employment, which could explain the relationship with income.

People do not adapt. New analyses of the dynamic effects of own and reference income on life satisfaction
Kaiser, C. 2020

Kaiser analyses UK and German data in this recent paper and finds that, in contradiction to much of the previous research, people do not get used to increases in their income. In fact, the effects of income may reinforce over time.

What is animal happiness?
Webb et al., 2019

In this paper, Webb et al. review the human happiness and animal welfare literatures in order to define animal happiness, and propose how to assess it. They argue that animal happiness depends on how an individual feels generally – that is, a typical level of affect.