The pursuit of happiness as the goal of life is a very old idea, but it’s only in recent decades that academics have developed valid and reliable ways to measure wellbeing through self-reports.
Now, for the first time in human history, we can work out the best ways to improve global happiness in a scientifically rigorous way. But what are they? We don’t know yet, which is why the Happier Lives Institute was set up to find out.
We conduct foundational research on the nature and measurement of wellbeing and applied research where we synthesise the existing data on subjective wellbeing to discover what will have the biggest impact. Our research draws on and develops previous work in the fields of philosophy, economics, and psychology.
To identify where additional resources can do the most good, we follow a three-stage process:
- Explore neglected global problems (such as mental health and pain)
- Identify cost-effective interventions for alleviating those problems
- Evaluate and recommend the best organisations that deliver those interventions
Our research is inspired by the effective altruism movement which aims, in principle, to promote wellbeing but has not yet made use of subjective wellbeing data to determine what the global priorities should be. By combining the effective altruism mindset with the tools and insights from wellbeing science we are pioneering a new approach to doing good better.
What have we found so far?
Our search for funding opportunities starts with the expectation that money goes furthest in low-income countries. So far, we’ve evaluated two well-evidenced interventions in this setting: cash transfers and psychotherapy.
A large number of academic studies show that cash transfers are a very effective way to reduce poverty. The strength of this evidence led GiveWell (a charity evaluator) to recommend GiveDirectly as one of their top charities. But what impact do cash transfers have on subjective wellbeing? We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of 45 studies which found that cash transfers have a small, long-lasting and statistically significant positive effect on subjective wellbeing and mental health. This work was published in Nature Human Behaviour in 2022.
However, we suspected that treating people with depression in low-income countries could be even more cost-effective than cash. After a rigorous assessment of 76 mental health programmes, we identified StrongMinds as one of the best charities delivering psychotherapy in a low-income setting.
Then, drawing on evidence from over 80 studies and over 140,000 participants, we made a direct comparison of StrongMinds and Give Directly based on their effects on subjective wellbeing and mental health. We found that StrongMinds’ eight-week psychotherapy course has a similar effect to a $1,000 dollar cash transfer but it costs much less to provide, only $130 per person. To our knowledge, this is the first time that the cost-effectiveness of two different types of intervention has been compared in terms of subjective wellbeing.
We also conducted additional analysis to estimate the spillover effects of cash transfers and psychotherapy on other household members. For cash transfers, we estimate that each household member experiences 86% of the benefits experienced by the recipient. For psychotherapy, we estimate the spillover ratio to be 53%.
Bringing together this whole body of research, we estimate that StrongMinds is 9 times more cost-effective than GiveDirectly.
This finding presents a challenge to current thinking about the best ways to improve the lives of others and suggests that treating mental health conditions should be a much higher priority for philanthropists and policymakers.
- Why mental health may be a global priority: Global priority: mental health
- How we identified StrongMinds: Mental Health Programme Evaluation Project
- Cost-effectiveness analyses: cash transfers | psychotherapy | StrongMinds
- A summary of the three analyses: Donating money, buying happiness
- Estimating household spillover effects: Happiness for the whole family
In addition to our empirical research, we’ve also investigated a number of philosophical questions about the nature and measurement of wellbeing, including:
- What is wellbeing?
- How can we measure it?
- How should we compare saving lives and improving lives?
- Is life satisfaction what really matters?
- How comparable are self-reported data?
Our research agenda and context sets out our three main research areas and our priorities within them.
In the coming months, we plan to publish new foundational research on:
- Will faster economic growth make us happier?
- Comparing existence to non-existence (determining the neutral point)
- A critique of Open Philanthropy’s Cause Prioritisation Framework
Our search for outstanding funding opportunities continues at three levels of scale. These are set out below with examples of the interventions and policies we plan to investigate next.
Micro-interventions (helping one person at a time)
Meso-interventions (systemic change through specific policies)
Macro-interventions (systemic change through the adoption of a wellbeing approach)
- Advocacy for, and funding of, subjective wellbeing research
- Developing policy blueprints for governments to increase wellbeing
Funders of different sizes have different priorities so we’ll continue to investigate where to spend the next dollar as well as developing a diversified portfolio of funding opportunities with varying levels of uncertainty.