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? That is what 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
- Identify cost-effective interventions for alleviating those problems
- Evaluate the best organisations that deliver those interventions
By focusing on subjective wellbeing, we can compare these interventions and charities on a universal metric called wellbeing-adjusted life years (WELLBYs). One WELLBY is equivalent to a 1-point increase on a 0-10 subjective wellbeing scale for one year. Unlike measures of health or wealth, WELLBYs capture the overall benefit people receive from an intervention, which allows us to make apples-to-apples comparisons between interventions that impact different outcomes.
The WELLBY approach is based on decades of research in social science, but we are the first to use this scientifically reliable tool to work out the best ways to help others.
We provide more information about our methodology and approach on the following pages:
What have we found so far?
Our research is continually ongoing, and a full list of our publications can be found here.
Applied research to increasing wellbeing in the world
Our search for funding opportunities starts with the expectation that money goes furthest in low-income countries. So far, we’ve completed in-depth evaluations of four promising interventions in terms of happiness: cash transfers, psychotherapy, deworming pills, and antimalarial bednets.
We review our research on these interventions in detail below, but donors can find a brief overview of our top charity recommendations here. A changelog of how our evaluations change over time can be found here.
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. We think the strength of evidence for cash transfers is strong.
Mental health can have a severe impact on wellbeing and is a neglected cause area, especially in low- and middle-income countries. 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. We conducted the first assessment of psychotherapy and StrongMinds – and comparison to GiveDirectly – in terms of subjective wellbeing. We also conducted additional analysis to estimate the spillover effects of cash transfers and psychotherapy on other household members.
We conducted a substantial update to this analysis, in which we conducted a systematic review, and a meta-analysis of 77 RCTs and made several other improvements to our methodology.
Our updated analysis suggests that psychotherapy still has an important effect on wellbeing. We found that StrongMinds’ six-week psychotherapy course delivered at ~$63 per person will produce 30 (95% CI: 15, 75) WELLBYs per $1,000 donated. This is still 3.7 times more cost-effective than GiveDirectly’s cash transfers which produces 8 (95% CI: 1, 32) WELLBYs per $1,000. We also find that Friendship Bench, a non-profit that treats people for depression with problem-solving therapy (PST) primarily in Zimbabwe, is potentially another highly cost-effective charity.
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. We think the strength of evidence for psychotherapy is moderate, and we think there is more work we can do to refine our analysis further.
The insecticide-treated nets distributed by the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) have been considered a safe bet by the effective altruism community for many years: nets cost around $2 each and it costs, on average, a few thousand dollars to save a life. But how do we compare the relative value of interventions that improve lives against those that extend lives? Our report, The Elephant in the Bednet, explores this topic in detail.
As the title suggests, this is a question that people (understandably) find discomforting, but the issue is important and unavoidable. The relative value of extending or improving life depends very heavily on your philosophical views about the badness of death and the point at which a person’s wellbeing changes from positive to negative. Although these issues are well-known in academic philosophy, they are almost entirely glossed over by charity evaluators.
Using existing estimates, we examined how the cost-effectiveness of AMF changes under various philosophical views. We find that the cost-effectiveness changes dramatically as we shift from one extreme of (reasonable) opinion to the other. Under some views, psychotherapy is a more cost-effective option than AMF. However, under other views particularly favourable to saving lives (deprivationism and a low neutral point), AMF is more cost-effective than psychotherapy. We advise interested individuals to read the full report to inform their decision-making.
Parasitic infections from worms affect around a billion people in mostly low- and middle-income countries and cause a range of health problems (Else et al., 2020; WHO, 2011). The case for deworming is that it is very cheap (less than $1 per year of treatment per person) and there is suggestive evidence it might have large effects on later income (by improving educational outcomes which enable recipients to earn more in later life).
However, the evidence of the long-term impacts of deworming comes primarily from one study, and the strength of the evidence is weak. Using the existing data, we conducted the first analysis of the impact of deworming on subjective wellbeing that we know of (Dupret et al., 2022). We find a very small and statistically non-significant effect of deworming on happiness. Overall, we conclude that the impact of deworming is uncertain based on the available evidence. Because the effect is so small and uncertain, and because the data come from a single study, we do not make recommendations for deworming at this time.
We show the cost-effectiveness of the interventions we have evaluated in-depth so far in the graph below. The graph shows our estimate of how many WELLBYs would be generated from a $1,000 donation.
Note. The diamonds represent the central estimate of cost-effectiveness (i.e., the point estimates). The shaded areas are probability density distribution and the solid whiskers represent the 95% confidence intervals for StrongMinds, Friendship Bench, and GiveDirectly. The lines for AMF (the Against Malaria Foundation) are different from the others1They represent the upper and lower bound of cost-effectiveness for different philosophical views (not 95% confidence intervals as we haven’t represented any statistical uncertainty for AMF). Think of them as representing moral uncertainty, rather than empirical uncertainty. The upper bound represents the assumptions most generous to extending lives and the lower bound represents those most generous to improving lives. The assumptions depend on the neutral point and one’s philosophical view of the badness of death (see Plant et al., 2022, for more detail). These views are summarised as: Deprivationism (the badness of death consists of the wellbeing you would have had if you’d lived longer); Time-relative interest account (TRIA; the badness of death for the individual depends on how ‘connected’ they are to their possible future self. Under this view, lives saved at different ages are assigned different weights); Epicureanism (death is not bad for those who die – this has one value because the neutral point doesn’t affect it).. Deworming charities are not shown, because we are very uncertain of their cost-effectiveness.
Cause area explorations
We have also conducted shallower investigations into a handful of new cause areas. Based on our preliminary research, we think there are promising opportunities to improve wellbeing by:
- preventing lead exposure
- improving childhood nutrition
- improving parenting (e.g., encouraging stimulating play, avoiding maltreatment)
- preventing violence against women and children
- providing pain relief in palliative care
We have conducted forays into possible interventions to improve wellbeing via fistula repair surgery, increasing immigration, and housing improvements. However, there is too little evidence to recommend these interventions. Our shallow reports on all of these topics are forthcoming.
Fundamental research about wellbeing
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?
- What should we do when we’re uncertain about ethics (rather than about the facts)?
We have piloted a forthcoming survey testing questions of linearity, comparability, and neutrality of life satisfaction scales in more depth.
So far, we’ve looked at only a small number of interventions in terms of their impact on subjective wellbeing. Our findings have revealed surprising results and suggest new priorities for doing the most good. However, it’s highly unlikely that we’ve found the best ways to improve happiness already, so we have a pipeline of foundational research on the nature and measurement of wellbeing and applied research on the most cost-effective ways to help people become happier.
- 1They represent the upper and lower bound of cost-effectiveness for different philosophical views (not 95% confidence intervals as we haven’t represented any statistical uncertainty for AMF). Think of them as representing moral uncertainty, rather than empirical uncertainty. The upper bound represents the assumptions most generous to extending lives and the lower bound represents those most generous to improving lives. The assumptions depend on the neutral point and one’s philosophical view of the badness of death (see Plant et al., 2022, for more detail). These views are summarised as: Deprivationism (the badness of death consists of the wellbeing you would have had if you’d lived longer); Time-relative interest account (TRIA; the badness of death for the individual depends on how ‘connected’ they are to their possible future self. Under this view, lives saved at different ages are assigned different weights); Epicureanism (death is not bad for those who die – this has one value because the neutral point doesn’t affect it).