Four new research articles

16 November 2020

We’re excited to share three new major pieces of work – on cash transfers, measuring well-being, and pain – which tackle key questions from our 2020 research agenda. In addition, we’re publishing an explainer on the philosophy of well-being.

Together, these are a product of many months of work which take us further forward on our mission to find the best ways to measure and increase global well-being.


The impact of cash transfers on subjective well-being and mental health

We know that cash transfers reduce poverty, improve health, and enhance education, but what impact do they have on subjective well-being? Put simply, does money make people happy? The literature on the link between income and subjective well-being has long lacked causal evidence. Luckily, there has been recent research using cash transfers in low and middle-income countries.

Joel McGuire and co-authors at the University of Oxford systematically reviewed the available literature on the effect of cash transfers on subjective well-being in low- and middle-income countries. Our meta-analysis, based on 38 studies, finds that cash transfers have a small, positive effect on subjective well-being. This effect is (surprisingly) long-standing, lasting for several years. Various factors influence the magnitude of the effect. Larger cash transfers have a larger effect, and conditional cash transfers have a smaller effect than unconditional transfers. The effect on life satisfaction is larger than the effect on depression outcomes.

We will soon conduct similar reviews of other global health and development interventions – such cataract surgery and psychological therapy – to determine whether these methods can increase subjective well-being more cost-effectively than cash transfers.

Read the working paper


Are subjective well-being scores cardinally comparable?

One of the most common concerns about using measures of subjective well-being is whether individuals’ scores are cardinally comparable. If two people both report their happiness is 7/10, how confident can we be that they are as happy as each other?

In a new working paper, Michael Plant makes four important contributions to addressing this problem:

  1. First, he offers a novel ‘Schelling point’ hypothesis about how people interpret subjective scales based on philosophy of language and game theory. If this hypothesis is true, their answers will be cardinally comparable.
  2. Second, he specifies four assumptions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for cardinality.
  3. Third, he empirically tests if these conditions hold by surveying the subjective well-being literature and concludes, tentatively, that subjective scales are best understood as cardinally comparable.
  4. Fourth, he makes some testable predictions of the hypothesis and explains how such tests could be used to adjust subjective data if it turned out not to be cardinal.

Michael reaches an optimistic conclusion. Not only is there not a problem where we feared there might be one, but we may well be able to fix the problem if we later discover it does exist.

Read the working paper



We all expect to experience some pain in our lives. For most of us, especially those in high-income countries, these experiences will be mild, bearable, and short. Others are not so fortunate. Millions suffer excruciating pain. Millions more suffer moderate or severe pain. They suffer despite the fact that cheap and effective treatments exist.

Our latest problem area report, written by Sid Sharma, discusses the measurement of pain then explores three major causes of pain and what might be done to relieve them:

  1. Terminal conditions requiring access to opioids in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) – due to the large inequity and unmet need.
  2. Headache disorders – due to the large burden of disease (migraines) and severe intensity of pain (cluster headaches).
  3. Low back pain – due to the large burden of disease.

The report closes with suggestions for further research and identifies some promising career and donation opportunities.  Our conclusion is optimistic: although pain causes substantial suffering for millions of people, solutions are closer to hand than we might have expected. 

Read the report


The philosophy of well-being

HLI conducts both theoretical and applied research in order to find the most effective ways to measure and increase global well-being. But, what is ‘well-being’? This short article, by Fin Moorhouse, Michael Plant and Tom Houlden, summarises what philosophers do (and don’t) mean by ‘well-being’, introduces the three main rival accounts of what well-being is, then briefly considers their theoretical strengths and weaknesses. ​

Read the article