This year, we are running our first Summer Research Fellowship. We received over 60 applications for the eight-week programme and we’re excited to be joined by six of the brightest up-and-coming talents in the field of subjective well-being research.
Three are working with Joel on estimating the cost-effectiveness of various micro interventions. These include bednets, vitamin-A supplementation, conditional cash transfers, fistula surgery, nutrient fortification, and filters to reduce air pollution.
The other three are working with Michael on crucial considerations. These include the influence of affective forecasting on cause prioritisation, establishing the neutral point on a 0-10 life satisfaction scale, and predicting trends in national well-being averages.
You can read more about our 2021 Fellows, and their research projects, below:
Matt is studying for a PhD in psychology at Northeastern University in Boston with a focus on emotion and decision-making. His work for HLI will explore what psychological research on affective forecasting can tell us about the difference between (1) what we intuitively expect the global priorities are for increasing happiness and (2) what they really are.
Frank is nearing the end of a PhD in philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is also a Global Priorities Fellow with the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research. Frank will be working on one of the foundational questions on our research agenda, establishing the ‘neutral point’ equivalent to non-existence on a 0-10 scale of life satisfaction.
Chihiro is a data scientist with over four years’ experience in data engineering, data science, and business. She is also studying for a Masters in International Social and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She will be working alongside Amarins to assess the cost-effectiveness of different interventions that increase subjective well-being.
Niall Maher Predicting changes in national SWB averages
Niall is a trainee at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg where he analyses projects for the European Development Bank. He completed his Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Political Science, Economics, and Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He will be investigating if we should expect country levels of SWB to go up in the future, and if so, by how much, and for which countries.
Amarins is a graduate student in Methodology & Statistics at Leiden University. She previously worked as a research assistant on nudging and founded an Effective Altruism group at Erasmus University. Amarins will be working alongside Chihiro to assess the cost-effectiveness of different interventions that increase subjective well-being.
Akash is studying for a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, having completed his BA in psychology at Harvard University. His research focuses on developing low-cost treatments for depression and anxiety and testing these interventions in low-resource settings.
Following our report on pain last year, our latest problem area report investigates the global burden of mental illness.
The report sets out how big the problem is, how much spending it receives, and how those resources are allocated. It then focuses specifically on what can be done to reduce anxiety and depression in low-income countries. We expect it will be most useful for those considering putting their career or charitable donations towards improving global mental health and who want to learn more about the problem.
We’re pleased to be releasing this: it updates, extends, and deepens the 2018 cause profile written by our Director, Michael Plant, which was the most recent exploration of the same issues.
Michael Plant and Peter Singer argue for drug legalisation in Agora, the philosophy column of the New Statesman. They claim: “The ‘War on Drugs’ has failed. It’s time that governments, not gangsters, run the drug market.” You’ll find further discussion on the EA Forum and Twitter.
Read answers from Tim Ferriss, Michael Pollan, and Dr Matthew W. Johnson - three people who have done a lot to increase the profile and prospects of psychedelic research. We were excited to see a detailed answer from Tim Ferriss to Michael’s question on the cost-effectiveness of putting additional resources towards psychedelics.
The Happier Lives Institute is searching for the best ways to measure and improve global well-being; we conduct global priorities research using the lens of subjective well-being.
Following our founding and incubation in 2019, 2020 was our first full year of research and operations as an organisation. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been reflecting on our progress and speaking to stakeholders (you can read GiveWell’s write-up of our conversation with them here).
In this blog post, we’re excited to share our 2020 annual review, which sets out those reflections and our plans for the future, our new Research Agenda, to announce that we’re hiring(!) and to mention a couple of other things we’ve been involved with.
2020 ANNUAL REVIEW How is our research making a difference?
In 2020, we sought to address the most important questions on our research agenda and to develop our capacities as an organisation that conducts careful and action-relevant research. Our aims were (1) to build the case for using subjective well-being as an outcome measure in impact evaluation and (2) to investigate whether using this new approach would indicate new priorities for the effective altruism community.
Our annual review reflects on the progress we have made, the outcomes of our research so far, and a summary of our plans for 2021 and beyond.
NEW RESEARCH AGENDA How have our priorities changed?
We’ve also published an updated research agenda and context. This sets out the broad, interdisciplinary area in which our work sits and then specifies the research priorities within that: where additional research seems more (or less) useful, as well as where we expect to focus our efforts in the next one to two years. Our current research priorities fall within three core research projects. Area 2 is our main focus and where the majority of our effort will go.
Area 1: Foundational research into measuring well-being
Examining how best to convert between different measures.
Investigating how to compare existence to non-existence using subjective well-being scales.
Area 2: Applied research to evaluate the most cost-effective ways to increase well-being
Estimating, in terms of subjective well-being, the impact of potentially highly-effective interventions, including: psychotherapy for common mental disorders; cataract surgery for blindness; deworming tablets to improve lifelong earnings.
Setting out how different moral assumptions—about what well-being is, the badness of death, and population ethics—alter those cost-effectiveness estimates and may alter the priorities.
Area 3: Understanding the wider context of global priorities
Exploratory research into the plausibility and implications of the longtermist paradigm, the idea that the primary determinant of the value of our actions today is how those actions influence the very long-run future.
We’re also planning to offer some paid Summer Research Fellowships. This is an opportunity to contribute to our research agenda and work with the team for 6-10 weeks this summer. We’ll be publishing more details about these in the coming weeks but if you’d like to express interest now, please share your details with us in this short form, and we will let you know when applications open.
Other links you may be interested in...
BBC RADIO 4 Michael appeared alongside Mo Gawdat, Laurie Santos, and Emily Esfahani Smith to discuss whether lower expectations lead to more happiness.
WORKSHOP RECORDINGS Joel and Michael attended a workshop on fundamental issues in the measurement of subjective well-being, co-hosted by the Wellbeing Research Centre (Oxford) and the Bennett Institute (Cambridge). You can watch all of the talks here, including Michael’s on his working paper on the comparability of happiness scales.
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.
NEW META-ANALYSIS 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.
NEW 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:
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.
Second, he specifies four assumptions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for cardinality.
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.
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.
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:
Terminal conditions requiring access to opioids in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) – due to the large inequity and unmet need.
Headache disorders – due to the large burden of disease (migraines) and severe intensity of pain (cluster headaches).
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.
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.
We presented our latest findings at the EAGxVirtual conference, followed by a Q&A session:
If you’d prefer to read our full update, you can find it here.
NEW POST 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, 2, 3), 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.
NEW WORKING PAPER 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.