Announcing the launch of the Happier Lives Institute

byMichaelPlant1mo19th Jun 201942 comments

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Following months of work by a dedicated team of volunteers, I am pleased to announce the launch of the Happier Lives Institute, a new EA organisation which seeks to answer the question: ‘What are the most effective ways we can use our resources to make others happier?’

Summary

The Happier Lives Institute is pioneering a new way of thinking about the central question of effective altruism - how can we benefit others as much as possible? We are approaching this through a ‘happiness lens’, using individuals’ reports of their subjective well-being as the measure of benefit. Adopting this approach indicates potential new priorities, notably that mental health emerges as a large and neglected problem.

Our vision is a world where everyone lives their happiest life.

Our mission is to guide the decision-making of those who want to use their resources to most effectively make lives happier.

We aim to fulfill our mission by:

1. Searching for the most effective giving opportunities in the world for improving happiness. We are starting by investigating mental health interventions in low-income countries.

2. Assessing which careers allow individuals to have the greatest counterfactual impact in terms of promoting happier lives.

Our approach

Our work is driven by three beliefs.

1) We should do the most good we can

We should use evidence and reason to determine how we can use our resources to benefit others the most. We follow the guiding principles of effective altruism: commitment to others, scientific mindset, openness, integrity, and collaborative spirit.

2) Happiness is what ultimately matters

Philosophers use the word ‘well-being’ to refer to what is ultimately good for someone. We think well-being consists in happiness, defined as a positive balance of enjoyment over suffering. Understood this way, this means that when we reduce misery, we increase happiness. Further, we believe well-being is the only thing which is intrinsically good, that is, that matters in and of itself. Other goods, such as wealth, health, justice, and equality are instrumentally valuable: they are not valuable in themselves, but because and to the extent that they increase happiness.

3) Happiness can be measured

The last few decades have seen an explosion of research into ‘subjective well-being’ (SWB), with about 170,000 books and articles published in the last 15 years. SWB is measured using self-reports of people’s emotional states and global evaluations of life satisfaction; these measures have been shown to be valid and reliable. We believe SWB scores are the best available measure of happiness; therefore, we should use these scores, rather than anything else (income, health, education, etc.) to determine what makes people happier.

Specifically, we expect to rely on life satisfaction as the primary metric. This is typically measured by asking “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” (0 - 10). While we think measures of emotional states are closer to an ideal measure of happiness, far fewer data of this type is available. A longer explanation of our approach to measuring happiness can be found here.

When we take these three beliefs together, the question: “How can we do the most good?” becomes, more specifically: “What are the most cost-effective ways to increase self-reported subjective well-being?”

Our strategy

Social scientists have collected a wealth of data on the causes and correlates of happiness. While there are now growing efforts to determine how best to increase happiness through public policy, no EA organisation has yet attempted to translate this information into recommendations about what the most effective ways are for private actors to make lives happier. The Happier Lives Institute intends to fill this gap.

In doing this, we hope to complement the rigorous and ground-breaking work undertaken by GiveWell and 80,000 Hours and to collaborate with them where feasible. To highlight the divergences, our ‘happiness lens’ approach is a different approach to assessing impact from the one GiveWell takes; GiveWell does not focus on mental health; we aim to investigate more speculative giving opportunities and those outside global health and development. 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.

Current work

Our work is divided into two streams.

  1. A research group is investigating the most promising giving opportunities among mental health interventions in lower and middle-income countries. We’ve developed a screening tool to assess a list of nearly 200 interventions stated on the Mental Health Innovation Network website. The eight members of our screening team give these individual ratings, which we then check for inter-rater reliability. Once we’ve moved through the list, we will build cost-effectiveness models for the most promising interventions.
  2. Individuals pursuing projects taken from our research agenda. Current projects are on positive education (Jide Alaga), careers (Teis Rasmussen), personal happiness interventions (Stephan Tegtmeier), and the nature and measurement of happiness (Michael Plant). Further information on individuals' projects can be found on our Team page.

Future plans

Our research agenda consists of three sections:

  • Cause areas: explains how our six main cause areas (mental health, pain, positive education, societal change, drug policy reform, research) were identified and presents specific questions related to each.
  • More general research questions: sets out further relevant research questions that are not specifically related to one of the six cause areas.
  • Towards practical recommendations: identifies research questions that seem particularly relevant for determining what effective altruists should do right now. This is based on our current understanding and, naturally, is subject to change depending on the insights gained from answering the research questions stated in the preceding sections.

The research agenda is open and we welcome individuals to take topics and investigate them. If you would like to work on one of these please email hello@happierlivesinstitute.org so we can provide assistance and avoid unnecessary duplication of work.

Take action

What can do if you want to contribute to our mission?

The books and articles on our reading list will help you to deepen your understanding of what happiness is, how to measure it, what affects it and what can be done to improve it.

We have not completed sufficient research to make confident recommendations about the most effective interventions for improving happiness. However, we have identified some promising organisations which we believe are doing valuable work. If you are looking for high-impact giving opportunities to increase world happiness then this is the best place to start.

As our research develops, we intend to publish detailed career profiles to guide people who want to dedicate their careers to maximising the happiness of others. In the meantime, we’ve listed some initial ideas we think are promising. If you would be interested in volunteering with us, you can find more information on that here.

Follow our work

If you would like to be kept updated about our work then please sign up to our monthly e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

We will also be contributing regularly to the Effective Altruism, Mental Health, and Happiness Facebook group which has over 1,000 members.

Feedback

We greatly value your feedback, particularly in this early stage of our organisational development. Please post your questions and comments below or email us directly at hello@happierlivesinstitute.org. We expected to publish a Frequently Asked Questions page on our website in the next few weeks to address any areas of confusion or objections to our work.

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