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Summary: I wholeheartedly support HLI's emphasis on subjective well-being and propose extending its application beyond governments and charities. I explore the question of why people, both individually and as a society, aren't naturally optimizing their happiness, as it seems logical for it to be a natural priority. I delve into possible root causes and suggest ideas for systemic solutions to align individual, societal, and economic decisions with the goal of maximizing well-being.

Why aren’t people optimizing their happiness already?

I'm very excited about HLI’s work in advocating for prioritizing subjective well-being as the ultimate objective to guide charitable interventions, policy-making and societal advancement. A fundamental question arises: Why aren’t people, individually or collectively as a society, optimizing their happiness  already (I will use the terms 'well-being' and 'happiness' interchangeably)? People have their agency, and it would seem natural for happiness to be their natural priority. However, despite the remarkable achievements of human civilization, it’s not evident that we’ve made substantial progress in optimizing well-being. If humanity at large, not just select governments and philanthropists, were to efficiently optimize well-being through both individual and coordinated societal actions, we should be able to achieve significantly more.

Possible root causes

What might be the underlying reasons for people not naturally prioritizing and/or optimizing for their well-being (which I will further call “not being aligned with (their) well-being”)? There are multiple possible root causes:

  1. Mistaking money, power, or fame as ultimate goals - if it is not a widespread practice among policymakers to prioritize well-being, it is equally likely that the general public doesn’t fully understand nor embrace this approach.
  2. Unproductive desires or needs, such as a yearning for luxury or superiority - due to hedonic habituation and other psychological effects people tend to incorrectly perceive certain things as essential to their happiness. 
  3. Having unproductive or conflicting identities and beliefs - both negative self-perceptions, such as feeling unworthy or lazy, but also seemingly positive identities like being best at something that can lead to self-imposed pressure when challenged. If someone strongly identifies with a particular political or ideological group, this can lead to an 'us versus them' mentality, causing friction and reducing the ability to empathize with others. Similarly, beliefs rooted in societal expectations, such as those regarding success, beauty standards, or lifestyle choices, can create internal conflicts and pressures that diminish overall well-being.
  4. Pursuing their goals in unoptimized ways - even if pursuing the right ultimate/terminal goal or desirable instrumental goals, people usually make multiple, avoidable wrong decisions, due to cognitive biases and lack of widespread knowledge about effective decision-making.
  5. Failure to adhere to decisions due to self-discipline issues - even when people know what the right action to take is, they are not always able to follow through, as showcased, for example, by addictions or challenges in adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Solutions to above problems can have additional positive outcomes

Addressing the above problems can lead to positive outcomes that extend beyond the improved well-being of the directly affected individuals:

  1. Promoting Altruistic Attitudes: Helping others is inherently pleasurable, as well as gives a sense of purpose. Also, even from a pragmatic point of view, it gives a chance for direct or indirect reciprocity (i.e. people are more inclined to like you when you help others). Overall, a significant degree of altruism is both natural and optimal, but unaligned goals, desires and beliefs often strongly hinder it. Making individuals more aligned with their well-being, makes them more altruistic at the same time. 
  2. Enhanced Individual Decision-Making: One of the areas where enhanced individual decision-making profoundly benefits society is in the aspect of voting. Additionally, there are numerous other examples of how making better choices not only benefits personal well-being but also has positive effects on society, through reducing negative or promoting positive externalities. For example, adopting a healthier lifestyle reduces public healthcare costs while more rational purchasing decisions lower environmental impact.
  3. Improved Institutional Decision-Making: Institutional decision-making often mirrors the flawed patterns observed in individuals. Furthermore, these institutional decisions are shaped by societal expectations and norms. For example, prevailing societal attitudes can significantly influence the feasibility of implementing policies such as increasing foreign aid, addressing climate change, or enhancing funding for public health and education.
  4. Aligning the Economy with Well-being: According to the traditional economic theory, rationality governs human behavior, money is just a tool to measure utility (ultimately well-being) and thus maximizing financial metrics like GDP per capita would also maximize happiness. If it was accurate, maximizing happiness would be relatively straightforward, given that we are fairly good at maximizing GDP already. Unfortunately, it has been shown to be an incomplete model in practice. Nonetheless, better aligning individual choices and actions with true well-being could lead to an economic system that more accurately reflects genuine happiness. Given the immense scale of the global economy, even a marginal increase in its alignment with societal well-being could translate into significant positive change.

Potential solutions

Two broad categories of solutions emerge as potential responses to the challenges outlined earlier:

  1. Investing in consolidating and popularizing the already existing scientific knowledge from fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and economics.
  2. Investing in further, high-quality research in these or related domains with an emphasis on well-being alignment, decision-making, and behavioral change.

Possible initiatives might include:

  1. Supporting and expanding the reach of organizations, courses, and applications that teach skills that address the previously outlined challenges. Examples of such skills could be effective decision making, psychological tools (e.g. from CBT), instrumental and epistemic rationality and self-discipline which can be collectively referred to as well-being alignment.
  2. Designing and executing social campaigns to raise awareness about well-being alignment concepts and the importance of related skills. The objective would be to elevate these skills to the status of highly sought-after competencies, similar to how areas like personal finances, fitness, digital skills, and language learning are often perceived.
  3. Developing and implementing new interventions from scratch, specifically designed to teach these skills in the most effective manner.
  4. Undertaking interdisciplinary research reviews to synthesize existing knowledge and identify gaps for further investigation.

Any of these approaches can focus either on an individual, institutional, societal, or economic level. It's worth noting an overlap with Effective Altruism's Institutional Decision Making cause Area.

While neutral on long-termism, the systemic approach to well-being has the potential to resonate with various philosophical perspectives, whether the focus is on immediate improvements or the long-term future. Making individuals, society and the economy more aligned with well-being would represent an impactful “trajectory change”[1], ensuring that future civilizational and technological advancements genuinely enhance societal well-being, as well as lowering the risk of catastrophic decisions. Such an approach, offering both immediate and long-term benefits, may be particularly attractive to organizations influenced by long-termism, like Open Philanthropy or some of the Effective Altruism Funds.


I am eager to hear HLI's, as well as others' perspectives on these suggestions. Have you previously explored or considered any of these ideas?


  1. ^

    Citing the Global Priorities Institute: “In particular, we may be able to produce lasting technological or civilizational ‘trajectory changes’ whose expected long-term value exceeds that of existential risk mitigation.” 





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[Not answering on behalf of HLI, but I am an HLI employee]

Hi Michal, 

We are interested in exploring more systematic solutions to aligning institutions with wellbeing. This topic regularly arises during strategic conversations. 

Our aim is to eventually influence policy, for many of the reasons you mention. But we’re currently focusing on research and philanthropy. This is because there’s still a lot we need to learn about how to measure and best improve wellbeing. But before we attempt to influence how large amounts of resources are spent, I think we should be confident that our advice is sound. 

The institution that I’m most interested in changing is academia. I think: 

  • Wellbeing science should be a field. 
  • There should be academic incentives to publish papers about wellbeing priorities and cost-effectiveness analyses. 
    • The reasoning is that: if academia produced more high quality cost-effectiveness analyses of interventions and charities, HLI would be able to spend less time doing that research, and more time figuring out what that research implies about our priorities. 
    • This also strikes me as likely more valuable than the average project of those who tend to work on wellbeing related topics. 
  • It doesn’t seem implausible that we need to wait (or accelerate) research towards favoring best practices before we make strong, high stakes recommendations.  

Following up on that last point, Folk and Dunn (2023) reviewed the power and pre-registration status of research on the 5 most popular recommendations in media for individuals to increase their happiness. The, results, captured in the figure below, are humbling.

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That said, there is an organization that attempts to popularize and disseminate finding from wellbeing literature: https://actionforhappiness.org. We haven’t evaluated them yet, but they’re on our long list. I expect they’ll be challenging to evaluate. 

Hi Joel, 

Thank you for your response. I definitely agree about the need and usefulness of more high-quality research in the field of well-being, including wellbeing priorities and cost-effectiveness analyses. Has HLI considered taking actions to promote such research, beyond conducting research on your own?

On a related note, I recently came across the Global Flourishing Study (GFS), a $43.4 million initiative which can be found here: https://hfh.fas.harvard.edu/global-flourishing-study. While I haven't delved into the details of this study, its existence underscores the growing interest in well-being research. Influencing the direction and quality of such research could be incredibly impactful.

I think you're right about the implicit claim that people could be doing much more to directly improve their own wellbeing, and that it would be generally good if they did so.

However, it seems like you're assuming that when people aren't optimizing their happiness they're making a mistake. While I'm sure that's true a good proportion of the time, there are also surely lots of cases where people make choices which are worse for their own wellbeing in service of something else they value, e.g.:

  • An immigrant to a rich country sending money back to their family overseas rather than paying someone to deal with the damp issues in their accommodation.
  • Someone going to visit a not-particularly-liked aunt in a care home, because she has nobody else in the world.
  • Someone's religious devotion leaving them with less time for their family than would ideally like.

In each case the person would plausibly be happier if they gave up on valuing the thing they are making sacrifices for. It doesn't seem like we would generally think that they should. But it's not obvious to me how to draw a line which suggests that people valuing fame in its own right are mistaken, but people who are valuing these things in their own right are not mistake. (Perhaps there is a way of drawing such a line -- they do feel different -- but it's clear that it's not a case of straightforwardly "it would be good if people optimized much harder for their own happiness".)

This is also relevant for considering a longtermist perspective on optimizing for happiness. Many things that people might value for their effects on the long-term won't necessarily have big short-term benefits to happiness -- at least directly. If thinking through long-term impacts of any attempt to get people to optimize further for their happiness, it would be important to consider how this could lead to them discarding values that aren't so helpful.

Again, I think you're right that a lot (probably most) of what blocks people doesn't have this character. But I think it's an important category, and deserves some calling out explicitly if you're thinking about policy interventions.

This comment helps to highlight the importance of language when discussing this topic. Happiness and wellbeing are not the same thing and it can lead to confusion when the two terms are used interchangeably.

This post explains the three main theories of wellbeing: hedonism, desire-based views, and objective list views. If you're a hedonist, then failing to optimise for happiness would be a mistake. However, as Owen points out, people often trade off happiness for other things they value which is more consistent with the objective list theory.

Over recent decades, the field of wellbeing science has settled on 'life satisfaction' as the primary metric for subjective wellbeing. It's still important to track other measures too (e.g., positive/negative affect, sense of meaning/purpose), but I share the view that life satisfaction should be the goal of society. 

That's because life satisfaction is the common unit that people use when they make trade-offs between happiness, purpose, duty etc. It's the 'all things considered' assessment of a person's life, according to what they value. Many attempts to measure wellbeing rely on a dashboard of indicators, but in all those cases, the relative weightings of the indicators are decided by the researchers rather than the subjects of the research and, in my view, that misses the whole point. Having said that, I've read some compelling arguments against the life satisfaction approach from Plant (2023) and Thoma (2021) which readers may find insightful.

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