We hope you are keeping safe and well during this challenging period.
We’ve been pleased to see that the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on well-being have been discussed prominently in the media and academia.
Our director, Michael Plant, wrote a commentary with Peter Singer arguing that it is necessary to make difficult trade-offs when deciding when to lift the lockdowns, and that using subjective well-being measures would be the best way to weigh up the impacts on incomes, unemployment, mental health, and many other factors, as well as the number of deaths.
A team of wellbeing experts, including the former head of the UK civil service, has since published a working paper doing such an analysis, to which Michael contributed.
Our strategy has developed significantly since we published our launch post in June 2019. While we continue to be interested in mental health, we are not just a charity evaluator for mental health interventions. We see ourselves as a ‘meta’ org conducting global priorities research. We believe that using subjective well-being could significantly improve our ability to measure what matters, and therefore have an impact on both short- and long-term prioritisation.
We currently have a £25k funding gap until the end of 2020. This gap does not include hiring another researcher this year, which we would like to do. If you are interested in donating, please visit our website or email email@example.com.
The impact of cash transfers on subjective well-being
Cash transfers (CTs), are among the most extensively studied and implemented interventions in low- and middle-income countries, with a large body of evidence assessing their impact on physical health and economic well-being. However, there has been no systematic review of the growing research on how CTs affect measures of mental health and subjective well-being.
Working with social scientists at Oxford University, HLI will be conducting a systematic review of published and unpublished literature of CTs’ impact on well-being over the period 2000-2020. This will provide empirical evidence to inform CT policy, implementation, and research.
We have registered a protocol describing the methodology we will use for the review. We expect to publish our findings within the next three months.
We’re excited to welcome Sid Sharma and Caitlin Walker to the team as research interns until June. They will be working on our cause area reports for pain and mental health, respectively.
Sid is a junior doctor in Perth, Australia with an interest in population health and cultivating environments to enable people to live fulfilling lives. He has a Fulbright Scholarship to undertake a Master of Public Health at Harvard University in 2020.
Caitlin has a degree in Biological Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge. She has interned at UNAIDS and is part of a team developing an app for school education (Climate Science).
The final chapter of the World Happiness Report 2020 finds the most crucial steps towards building happier societies are, "Institutionally, building a government that is trustworthy and functions well, and culturally, building a sense of community and unity among the citizens".
Jason Hickel illustrates how development aid given to the Global South is hugely outweighed by the reverse transfer of resources due to the economic system. The sections on the history of the global economy, international trade, development aid, colonialism and Western-backed coups were particularly eye-opening.
The War for Kindness Jamil Zaki argues that an individual’s capacity for empathy (sharing, understanding, and acting on others’ feelings) is not fixed, and can be improved. He provides some unusually well-written accounts of how expanding empathy can address some of our more complex social problems, and argues that the future of humanity hinges on our capacity to increase our circle of concern. It is a well argued perspective to a general audience through a manner that is as heavy on evidence as it is writing in an emotionally evocative manner.
Our research falls into two streams. First, theoretical research into the nature and measurement of subjective well-being (SWB).
Priority questions for 2020 include:
Which measure of well-being should be (theoretically) preferred - life satisfaction, happiness, or something else?
To what extent are measures of subjective well-being valid - do they capture what they are supposed to capture?
When are subjective well-being scales comparable - can we assume one person’s 7/10 is, in expectation, the same as another person’s 7/10?
Second, applied research which asks: how can resources be best used right now to increase worldwide well-being? Our three projects for the year are:
A detailed analysis of several life-improving interventions - those working on poverty, mental health, and physical health - assessed in terms of their impact on SWB measures.
An evaluation of mental health interventions to identify the most cost-effective charities tackling depression and anxiety in low- and middle-income countries. This is a continuation of the work started by our team of volunteer researchers.
Writing or extending shallow reports into cause areas such as mental health and pain.
We are delighted to announce that Joel McGuire has joined the Happier Lives Institute as a Research Analyst. He will be working mainly on our applied research projects.
Joel is a big fan of using R and novel data sources for social science research. His past research includes creating an index to measure the geography of prospection and exploring factors that contribute to the persistence of goal pursuit. In the realm of happiness, he’s particularly fascinated by the role of social capital and trust in personal and societal well being.
Joel’s arrival means that HLI now has four permanent staff: Michael Plant (Founder and Director), Clare Donaldson (Chief Operating Officer), and Justus Baumann (Research and Community Manager). We continue to be supported by a dedicated team of volunteers. Read more about our team.
What we're reading
Can We Be Happier?: Evidence and Ethics Richard Layard argues that the goal for a society must be the greatest possible all round happiness, and shows how each of us can become more effective creators of happiness, both as citizens and in our own organisations. Read an excerpt and interview in The Guardian.
Evaluation of the Action for Happiness course A randomised control trial shows that the Action for Happiness course, which is run in hundreds of communities across the UK and around the world, results in a 1-point increase in life-satisfaction 2 months after the course ends.
The Science of Meditation Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson cut through the ‘mindfulness’ hype, highlighting the most rigorous scientific findings on how meditation rewires our brains to improve focus, resilience, equanimity, and compassion. Also see John Halstead's post on the Effective Altruism Forum about the strength of the evidence on meditation as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
The Third Pillar Economist, Raghuram Rajan, concedes to the common notion that capitalism (and the state) erodes communities which leads to populist backlash. He proposes that economics should rethink its treatment of localism.
TL; DR: This blog post summarises some recent developments for HLI after going through Charity Entrepreneurship’s Incubation Program.
HLI will conduct both theoretical and applied research on the broad question of how to most effectively use our resources to improve people’s well-being.
We are currently consulting with key stakeholders to prioritise the most important research questions for our first year.
Clare Donaldson joins HLI as Chief Operating Officer. Now there are 2.5 staff members as well as a team of volunteers.
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.
Next steps 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 Centreas 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.
Thanks for reading and we hope you have a happy day!
The Happier Lives Institute (“HLI”) is operating through a fiscal sponsorship with Players Philanthropy Fund (Federal Tax ID: 27-6601178), a Maryland charitable trust with federal tax-exempt status as a public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to HLI are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.