I am a researcher at the Happier Lives Institute. In my work I assess the cost-effectiveness of life-improving interventions in terms of subjective well-being, right now I'm working on comparing cataract surgery to cash transfers. Hopefully we can improve institutional decision-making by increasing our confidence in the which measures of well-being are most accurate without triggering hyphen-inflation.


The effect of cash transfers on subjective well-being and mental health

I realized my previous reply might have been a bit misleading so I am adding this as a bit of an addendum. 

There are previous calculations which include WELLBY like calculations such as Michael's comparison of StrongMinds to GiveDirectly in his 2018 Mental Health cause profile or in Origins of Happiness / Handbook for WellBeing Policy Making in the UK. Why do we not compare our effects to these previous efforts? Most previous estimates looked at correlational effects and give no clear estimate of the total effect through time. 

An aside follows: An example of these results communicated well is Micah Kaats thesis (which I think was related to HRI's WALY report). They show the relationship of different maladies to life satisfaction and contextualize it with different common effects of life events. 

Moving from standard deviations to points on a 0-11 scale is a further difficulty. 

Something else worth noting is that different estimation methods can lead to systematically different effect sizes.In the same thesis, Kaats shows that fixed effects model tend to have lower effects. 

While this may make it seem as if the the non fixed effects estimates are over-estimates. That's only if you "are willing to assume the absence of dynamic causal relationships" -- whether that's reasonable will depend on the outcome. 

As Michael did in his report with StrongMinds, and Clark et al., did for two studies (moving to a better neighborhood and building cement floors in Mexico -- p. 207) in Origins of happiness, there have been estimates of cost effectiveness that take duration of effects into consideration, but they address only single studies. We wish to have a good understanding of evidence base as a whole before presenting estimates. 

To further explain this last point, I have the view that the more scrutiny is applied to an effect the more it diminishes (can't cite a good discussion of this at the moment). Comparing the cost effectiveness of a single study to our synthesis could give the wrong impression. In our synthesis we try hard to include all the relevant studies where it's plausible that the first study we come across of an alternative well-being enhancing intervention is exceptionally optimistic in its effects.

The effect of cash transfers on subjective well-being and mental health


Glad to hear you're excited!

Unfortunately, we do not have a clear picture yet of how many WELLBYs per dollar is a good deal. Cash transfers are the first intervention we (and I think anyone) have analyzed in this manner. Figuring this out is my priority and I will soon review the cost effectiveness of other interventions which should give more context. To give a sneak peak, cataracts surgery is looking promising in terms of cost effectiveness compared to cash transfers.

Learnings about literature review strategy from research practice sessions

...a lack of good resources on how to actually do research.

Yes! It's hard to convey that you need to have already done a literature search to know what you need to search in the first place.

I second "Focus on breadth first!". Googling is cheap. Search longer than you think you need to. An additional good paper can be decisive in forming a view on a new topic. 

Searching smartly is often more effective than going down the citation trail.

I think "going down the citation trail" can often be very fruitful, especially if you search citations within a foundational article. E.g., 

Also: a good template can help you organize and focus your search. I only sorted the studies I found by their most salient features (the 4 colored 0/1 columns) after I'd gathered quite a few.

 I did not know about Seems useful! 

Some extremely rough research on giving and happiness

This an interesting topic, but one I haven't looked into much. I would like to see more work on this because while some claim that the link between prosocial spending and well-being is universal (Aknin et al., 2013) I wonder if that was a bit premature .  The study I reference found cross sectional correlations between subjective well-being and prosocial spending in 136 countries and followed this up with a few small experiments that concurred. 

Some other literature in the area for what it's worth: A series of recent pre-registered experiments (n =~ 7k) found mixed results (2 positive, 1 null) on the effect of  prosocial spending (not giving exactly) on happiness (Aknin et al., 2020). Another experiment (n = 615) finds that people do not adapt to giving like they adapt to spending on themselves (O'Brien and Kassirer, 2018).  Several studies find that the degree of warm glow is increased by being informed about its impact and having a greater orientation towards "meaning and authenticity" (n = 126) (Lai et al., 2020), another found that happier giving experiences were marked by feeling as if the choice was freely chosen, has a clear impact or is made towards a cause that the giver is connected to (Lok & Dunn, 2020 ).

Chapter four of the 2019 World Happiness Report reviews some of the evidence of prosocial behavior and subjective-well being (although it does not appear to mention the studies I reference above).

Now comes the controversial line from a recent study (n = 325) that takes a different tact: "Regression results showed that saving a life decreased long-run happiness by 0.26 SD (P < 0.01) (Table 1, column 4) relative to receiving money, conditional on individual-specific baseline levels of happiness." from Falk & Graeber (2020). 

Some comments on the above study (I haven't look at it in detail): By long-run they mean four weeks and they think saving a life means saving a life. 

Under conservative assumptions, a donation of 350 euros—roughly $400 at the time—covers all costs incurred by Operation ASHA to identify, treat, and cure five more patients, which is equivalent to saving one additional human life in expectation. 

Another relevant quote from the Falk & Graeber paper: 

A positive correlation between prosocial behavior and happiness is a central empirical justifi- cation for the quest to donate more. Philosopher Peter Singer forcefully argues that altruism is not about self-sacrifice, but that the greatest happiness arises from helping other people (33).