Update from the Happier Lives Institute

by ClareDonaldson, MichaelPlant7 min read30th Apr 20205 comments


Mental Health (Cause Area)Subjective Well-BeingOrg UpdateOrg StrategyCommunity


This post is an update on the progress and plans of the Happier Lives Institute (HLI), particularly focussing on our ongoing research and projects for the rest of 2020. Our last post on the forum was in June 2019, and our strategy has changed enough since then to warrant a new post. We welcome feedback on our plans.

We are a research organisation searching for the most effective methods to improve global well-being. We are doing this by using subjective well-being (SWB) - self-reported happiness and life satisfaction - as the key measure of value in impact evaluation. We think there's a strong theoretical case that SWB is the best way to measure how people's lives go. As effective altruists haven't made much use of this approach, or the existing social science evidence on it, we are exploring what it would look like to do cause prioritisation in terms of SWB.

Currently, our two main research projects are: (1) theoretical research into SWB and its measurement, (2) evaluating various life-improving interventions, e.g. cash transfers, in terms of SWB.

Our secondary projects explore promising areas when viewed through the SWB lens: (3) evaluating promising mental health programmes, and (4) broad but shallow cause reports into pain, mental health, and positive education.

While HLI is interested in mental health, we do not see ourselves as "the EA mental health org”, but as conducting global priorities research.

Our three staff members are conducting projects 1 and 2; volunteers are working on projects 3 and 4. We have room for more funding in 2020.

Our motivation

Many people aligned with effective altruism (EA) aim to maximise well-being. A common approach in impact evaluation is to measure the changes in people’s health or wealth and use these as proxies for well-being. For example: the use of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) and quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) is fairly routine; GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness model converts outcomes into the equivalent of doubling consumption and averting the deaths of under-5s.

While health and wealth clearly contribute to well-being, few would accept they are, in the end, what ultimately matters (i.e. are intrinsically valuable). Hence, the further challenge is to determine how much impact those, as well as other goods, directly have on well-being, so we can make trade-offs between them.

To do this, we could rely on the hypothetical or actual choices that either decision-makers or members of the public make (see some of GiveWell’s recent discussion). However, there are several reasons to believe that human biases may lead individuals to make poor assessments (e.g. Wikipedia article on affective forecasting). We do not clearly choose what is best for us.

An alternative is to ask people about their lives as they live them. Subjective well-being (SWB) is an umbrella term that includes self-reported life satisfaction and happiness data. We expect most readers would agree that well-being consists in happiness or life satisfaction, at least in part. Research into SWB is rising quickly in academia; over 170,000 books and articles have been published on the topic in the last 15 years (Diener et al., 2018).

EA organisations have not (yet) made much use of the existing work on SWB to determine the priorities, and this may lead us to different and surprising conclusions. Therefore, we think that exploring the use of SWB in determining our priorities is a project with high expected value.

At HLI, we plan to spend the bulk of our research time over the next year on projects that show how and why subjective well-being can be used to evaluate impact in areas already of interest to EAs, for instance, the effect on SWB from cash transfers relative to other interventions (Projects 1 and 2, see below).

We are also excited about ‘horizon scanning’ for cause areas and interventions that may be more cost-effective than those EAs currently consider - if SWB plays a large factor in their considerations (Projects 3 and 4, see below). Our research plans are deliberately broad this year, as we are uncertain about which path will have the greatest counterfactual impact for us in the years to come.

We would like to stress that we are not ‘the EA mental health org’. While we think mental health is a promising area to investigate, we do not yet have a firm view on whether any mental health interventions are as cost-effective as those in global (physical) health and development currently preferred by many EAs. We are alive to the possibility that our research will not indicate any new priorities for the effective altruism movement.

Our story so far

  • April 2018 - Michael Plant gives a talk about measuring well-being at EAGxNetherlands and a group (“the welfare warriors”) spontaneously forms to think about how to approach happiness and mental health from an EA perspective.
  • Oct 2018 - A set of volunteers comes together at EA Global London and begins talking seriously about forming an organisation that eventually becomes HLI.
  • April 2019 - Justus Baumann becomes the first paid staff member as the general project manager. Volunteers are already working on the mental health programme evaluation, initially led by Brendan Eappen and Jasper Synowski, and reviewing positive education (more below).
  • June 2019 - HLI’s website is launched, in large part due to the work of Nikita Patel and Barry Grimes.
  • June-Aug 2019 - Michael Plant - HLI’s Director - attends the Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Programme.
  • Sep 2019 - Clare Donaldson joins as Chief Operating Officer after participating in the Incubation Programme.
  • Oct 2019 - Michael Plant finishes his DPhil in philosophy and joins the Wellbeing Research Centre, Oxford University, as a Research Fellow. HLI’s updated research agenda is released.
  • Nov 2019 - HLI receives a $20,000 grant from the EA Meta Fund.
  • Jan 2020 - Joel McGuire starts as a Research Analyst.

Research in 2020

Project 1 - Theoretical work on subjective well-being measures

This project is a mixture of original philosophical investigation and literature review on the following questions:

  • Are SWB measures valid and reliable? That is, do they capture what they are supposed to capture?
    • Output: This will be a short review post.
  • Which measure(s) of well-being should we use - life satisfaction, happiness, or something else?
    • Outputs: Michael is currently writing a paper outlining some philosophical arguments against using life satisfaction. We will also write a review post outlining the pros and cons of the different theories of well-being.
  • Are SWB scales cardinally comparable? That is, if two people each report a 1-point increase on the same 10-point scale, can we assume their SWB has gone up by the same amount?
    • Outputs: Michael is currently writing a paper outlining the conditions necessary and sufficient for cardinality and reviewing the extant evidence on whether cardinality is met.

Project 2 - Assessing the cost-effectiveness of life-improving interventions in terms of subjective well-being

This is a proof-of-concept of using SWB to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of global health and development interventions. How strong is the currently available evidence? How do our priorities change when we use SWB as compared to more traditional metrics?

  • What impact do cash transfers have on SWB? Like others, we see cash transfers as a useful baseline for other interventions. Further, cash transfers are among the most extensively studied and implemented interventions in low- and middle-income country (LMICs) settings.
    • Outputs: Joel is currently conducting a systematic literature review (read the review protocol here), to be followed by a meta-analysis, of the effect on SWB from cash transfers in LMICs, in collaboration with social scientists at Oxford University.
  • What impact do (particular) physical health interventions have on SWB? This is very likely to include interventions that other EA organisations already consider to be promising in terms of cost-effectiveness, such as cataracts. This will allow us to investigate how using SWB may change our priorities. We welcome ideas for interventions to include.
    • Outputs: We expect to look into one or two physical health interventions this year. If the evidence base for any given intervention is relatively slim and a meta-analysis is inappropriate, then our literature review and report will be shallower than for cash transfers.
  • What impact do (particular) mental health interventions have on SWB? There is evidence to suggest that the effect on well-being tends to be underestimated for mental health conditions as determined with QALYs/DALYs (e.g. section 3, Chapter 3, of the 2019 Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Report). We want to explore this and investigate the cost-effectiveness of mental health interventions compared to cash transfers.
    • Outputs: We expect to look into one or two mental health interventions this year. As with physical health interventions, the nature of the analysis and report will largely depend on the size of the evidence base.

We are starting with interventions where most of the benefit is from improving lives, rather than saving them. To compare life-saving interventions in terms of SWB, we need to establish which point on the SWB scale is equivalent in value to non-existence, and this is currently uncertain. We expect to consider this throughout the year, and will write up our thoughts in early 2021.

Project 3 - Mental health programme evaluation.

A team of volunteers are searching for the most effective programmes tackling depression and anxiety in LMICs. This will build on the mental health report from Founders Pledge. We are likely to use standard mental health scores (e.g. PHQ9) as the metric for comparison between mental health programmes; Project 2 will more fully explore the effect of mental health programmes on SWB. There will shortly be a forum post update on this project. In the meantime, more information can be found on our website.

Project 4 - Scoping reports into pain, mental health, and positive education.

These reports aim to investigate means to improve global well-being that seem unduly neglected. We are considering the scale, neglectedness, bottlenecks, and solutions within each broadly-defined cause area. We will do an initial search for promising solutions including charitable interventions, policies and basic research.


HLI’s current staff have spent about a month in Oxford working together, but the team is now working remotely for some period of time. The connections made in Oxford even in a month were significant; the benefit of being in a hub of world-class researchers was apparent.

We have an active group of volunteers from around the world working for us, on projects 3 and 4. We continue to receive more volunteering offers than we can manage (an amazing part of being in the EA community!)

We are aiming to register as a UK charity in 2020. We currently operate under a fiscal sponsor in the US.

Longer-term vision

We hope that by using better measures of what matters, exploring what we should do on the basis of those measures, and then encouraging others to take action, we can make lives happier in the here and now and contribute to better lives being lived over the long-run.

Over the next few years, we expect to expand our work on identifying effective solutions for improving global well-being. This may be through policy, donations and/or career recommendations. We expect to test and review our views of how we will do the most good as we are not yet highly confident of any single path.

How you can help

Stay informed

Sign up to our newsletter for quarterly updates on our work and to hear about future vacancies.

Make connections

If you or someone you know has expertise in the areas on our research agenda then we would love to speak to you or them! Please reach out at michael@happierlivesinstitute.org.

Provide feedback

If you have any questions or comments about our work, please share them in the comments section below or contact us directly at clare@happierlivesinstitute.org. We’re excited to answer your questions and learn from your experience.

Provide funding

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. As noted, projects 3 and 4 are being conducted by volunteers. Hiring another researcher would both speed up and increase the research depth of these projects. Further, there are other research projects we would like to work on but don’t currently have the capacity for.

If you are interested in donating, please visit our website or email michael@happierlivesinstitute.org.


We would like to extend our gratitude to those who have supported us on our journey so far. In particular, thank you to our current volunteers - Barry Grimes, Lucia Coulter, Derek Foster, Sonia Vallentin, Florian Kuhlmeier, Milo King, David Norrish, Jide Alaga, Ulf Johansson, Sid Sharma and Caitlin Walker - and previous contributors, your dedication is amazing! Thanks to our funders and to our advisors, particularly Joey Savoie, Karolina Sarek and Peter Brietbart. Finally, many thanks to Justus Baumann - who is now working on climate advocacy - for doing so much to bring the team together and for setting wonderful cultural norms at HLI.

Thanks for reading and have a happy day!


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:00 AM
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Amazing job Clare and Michael and everyone else involved. Keep up the good work.

As mentioned previously I would be interested, further down the line, to see a broad cause prioritisation assessments that looked at how SWB metrics might shed insight on how we compare global heath, to global economic growth, to improving decisions, to farmed animals well-being, to existential risk prevention, etc.

Thanks very much for your support Sam, we are grateful for it! As we've discussed with you, we are also keen to see how thinking in terms of SWB illuminates the cause prioritisation analysis.

It's easier to see how it could do this in some areas rather than others. As we're relying on self-report data, it's not obvious how we could use that to compare humans to non-humans (although one project is to think through if this is really not possible). And for comparing near-term to long-term interventions, these are plausibly not sensitive to one's measure of welfare anyway. The usual long-termist line is that such concerns 'swamp' near-term ones whichever way you look at it.

Thanks for the update and the great work! As someone whose values resolve around some broad conception of well-being and happiness, I'm very happy that you are gaining so much traction.

As someone who also takes well-being and happiness in the long run very seriously, I wonder how you are thinking about this. I only found this quote from the last update:

80,000 Hours primarily focuses on the long-term; we intend to provide guidance to those who careers will focus on (human) welfare-maximisation in the nearer-term.

Is that a strategic decision because you think a long-term focus on happiness would also converge on reducing the risk of extinction?

I overlooked your comment thread with Max Daniel in your launch post last year. Have you thought more about this? Is this a fair summary of June last year?

  • There seemed to have been strategic uncertainty about near- and long-term work
  • There is no consensus regarding population ethics, but Michael personally tends to lean to a person-affecting view which tends to focus the near-term
  • For broader appeal outside of EA, nearer-term work might be preferable

Relevant quotes:

I expect that HLI's primary audience to be those who have decided that they want to focus on near-term human happiness maximization. However, we want to leave open the possibility of working on improving the quality of lives of humans in the longer-term, as well as non-humans in the nearer- and longer-term.

Internally, we did discuss whether we should make this explicit or not. I was leaning towards doing so and saying that our fourth belief was something about prioritising making people happy rather than making people happy [I suppose this is supposed to say "making happy people"]. In the end, we decided not to mention this. One reason is that, as noted above, it's not (yet) totally clear what HLI will focus on, hence we don't know what our colours are so as to be able to nail them to the mast, so to speak.

Another reason is that we assumed it would be confusing to many of our readers if we launched into an explanation of why we were making people happier as opposed to making happy people (or preventing the making of unhappy animals). We hope to attract the interest of non-EAs to our project; outside EA we doubt many people will have these alternatives to making people happier in mind.

Thanks for this! Our position hasn’t changed much since the last post. We still plan to focus on mostly near-term (human) welfare maximisation, but we'd like to see if we can, in the next couple of years, do/say something useful about welfare maximisation in other areas (i.e. animals, the long-term). We haven't thought much about what this would be yet: we want to develop expertise in the area that seems most useful (by our lights) before thinking about expanding our focus.

Speaking personally, I take what is effectively a worldview diversification view to moral uncertainty (this is a change) although the rationale is different (I plan to write this up at some point). This, combined with my person-affecting sympathies, means I want to put most, but not all, of my efforts into helping humans in the near-term.