I am a researcher at the Happier Lives Institute. In my work, I assess the cost-effectiveness of interventions in terms of subjective wellbeing.

Topic Contributions


Will faster economic growth make us happier? The relevance of the Easterlin Paradox to Progress Studies

Yes, but it only exists for the past 20 years. I'm not sure anyone has done an analysis just looking at growth and changes to subjective wellbeing in low income countries over the past two decades. At HLI we started a project related to this last summer but it stalled and we haven't picked it up since. I'm afraid 20 years isn't enough time.

Will faster economic growth make us happier? The relevance of the Easterlin Paradox to Progress Studies

I haven't really thought of this before! At first this felt like "cheating" in some way, but on reflection it seems more reasonable. Maybe this is what most gratitude interventions get at? 

Will faster economic growth make us happier? The relevance of the Easterlin Paradox to Progress Studies

[Caveat I'm not an expert on this topic, just interested]

I think if people make their scales consistent with others they speak to, and use that same scale across time, for that to not imply similar scales across generations would mean that people don't really speak to people outside of their generation. Which could be plausible, I'm not really sure. It seems like a relatively heavy lift to ask someone "Hey, could you make sure the best and worst life you reference is the same as your grandparents?" 

But really I think what we need is more data! We can speculate til the cows come home.

(i.e. I don't even know what it would mean for your function to be linear)

That people attach equal value to each unit change in a scale? 

And indeed people could change functions over time while keeping those 0 and 10 pegs fixed.

That'd be pretty odd, wouldn't it? I think it's likelier that the scale stretches or shifts instead of the reporting function changing.  

I would change my mind more fully that scale norming is not occuring if I saw evidence that experience-sampling type measures of affect also did not change over the course of decades as countries become/became wealthier (and earned more leisure time etc).

Why do you think that ESM scales wouldn't change over the course of time if other scales did? Alas, I'm not sure this data exists. I think the closest thing is looking at time use data. Using time use happiness data Han & Kaiser (2021)  seem to suggest that Americans are a tiny tiny bit happier since the 80s? 

I'd also change my mind if I saw some experiment where people were asked to rate how their lives were going in relation to some shared reference point(s), such  as other people's lives descibed in a good amount of detail, and where people's ratings of how their lives were going relative to those reference points also didn't change as countries became significantly wealthier.

Interesting point. What about if there was evidence that people across ages tended to use subjective wellbeing scales in similar ways? 

Will faster economic growth make us happier? The relevance of the Easterlin Paradox to Progress Studies

[Note, I can't speak for Michael, but I work with Michael at the Happier Lives Institute.]

Without taking a stance on the broader thesis of this report, I think the evidence of hedonic adaptation is easy to overstate. Latent state-trait models show that changes in circumstances have detectable changes on well-being at least 10 years later, especially for affective measures.  Winning the lottery also has long-term effects of well-being (though more so on life satisfaction), contra the Brickman study that played a role in popularizing hedonic adaptation. 

Fair enough, hedonic adaptation in its stronger form,  the claim that people will quickly return to a set point of wellbeing, has holes. But I don't think the strong form was what was referenced in the text. I also see it as pretty uncontroversial that many things we could buy as a country would only give us fleeting enjoyment -- which is, I think, Michael's point. 

The claim I think most consistent with the paradox and existing evidence is that people do not fully adapt to higher levels of income, AND they also don't fully adapt to their neighbors getting richer (see Kaiser, 2020). So really, what we care about isn't adaptation per se but whether the benefits of income gains for everyone last. And maybe if everyone else gets more prosperous at the same time by similar amounts (unlike in most lottery studies or cash transfer RCTs), those benefits don't last. How long benefits and harms last is a complex topic that I think the literature doesn't study enough. But even if we had an excellent model of individual adaptation to change, I'm not sure how well that'd predict what happens when everyone's circumstances change. 

"Also in this context, the research by my own organisation, the Happier Lives Institute, finds that cash transfers to the very poor — those on the global poverty line — actually do have a small but significant effect on subjective wellbeing, one that continues over several years (McGuire, Kaiser, Bach-Mortensen, 2022)."

I would suggest also citing the evidence that this result may be an artifact of publication bias.

In our meta-analysis, we did check for publication bias using methods that existed at the time of the analysis -- and found nothing major. The Bartos et al. (2022) comment utilises a novel method with unclear merit that reaches a puzzling finding: cash transfers to impoverished people don't make them happier. I'm not sure what to make of it. If they're right, I wouldn't be surprised if most social science meta-analyses suffered the same fate. 

JoelMcGuire's Shortform

Wild Idea #4 Simultaneously Solve American Education, Politics and Maybe Housing

2050: It’s been twenty years since ground broke on Franklin University, nestled in the foothills of Medicine Bow National Forest. Cal NewPort was right, skilled researchers and professors flocked to the promise of 70%+ research time. The recent national spotlight on several successful alumni caused a surge of interest in the school. Enrollment surged. The school was beginning to turn a profit and wean itself off those tech millions. 

Its students aren’t that different from those attending good state schools, and the school doesn’t improve them all that much. Only 5% of each class goes into direct EA work (much higher for those who get a degree in Global Priorities Studies or Wellbeing Decision Science). The average student would look much the same if they’d gone elsewhere, but they’re slightly more sensible and expansive in their mindset. 

The research is where the university really shines. Professors get plenty of time to do research, as long as 40% of it is spent on the department’s high impact research agenda. They can spend the rest of their time exploring an esoteric and in expectation un-impactful area of knowledge, but the university probably won’t fund them to do it. 

The accompanying city of Longwell was planned with sane ideas about zoning and transportation. The relatively infertile land and embrace of building made it one of the only cities with genuinely cheap housing in a place worth living. Miles of hiking and biking trails sprawl out of the city and stretch into the surrounding hills and woodlands. The promise of cheap housing tempts many remote workers to the charmingly walkable city. Many remark that the town feels “old”, comparing it favorably to cozy north-eastern or European towns. The same appeal keeps a share of graduates hanging around, starting companies. 

The schools commitment to idealogical diversity somewhat appeases conservatives who sometimes point approvingly to the Universities’ distinct lack of wokeness. Since the beginning, many of the Institutes founders stress the non-partisan aspects of their shared research agenda. Despite the firm and careful guidance, the project draws the ire of pundits warning of a liberal plot to take over Wyoming and steal its securely Republican electoral and congressional votes. 

The success of Frank-U and Longwell spawn imitators across the country.

2090: Longwell and its suburbs, long the fastest growing MSA in the United States, is now large enough to be a political force in the state. For the first time, both Senators from Wyoming come from a liberal democratic political party. Sitting near the center, they exert disproportional political force. It still rides goodwill after several technologies stemming from projects related to the city blunted a potentially catastrophic pandemic in 2084. 


Note, that Montana, the second smallest red state with a population of 1 mil instead of ~500k voted 40% for Biden compared to 25% in woyming. This led to an absolute vote gap that was smaller, 100k instead of 120k.

Seven (more) learnings from LEEP

“In LEEP’s second year (this year), we started working in six more countries, bringing the total to nine. We received another government commitment and paint manufacturers in two countries started switching to lead-free.”

I would just like to point out that this is incredible. Policy advocacy seems very hard. To have two commitments from two countries in two years seems very unusual for any domain of policy or regulation. Keep in mind that this domain involves one of the most potent poisons we managed to spread everywhere. Even if these countries drag their feet, they would have to drag very hard for the value of these two years, and the expected value of LEEP to not be very high. 

The cost-effectiveness looks strong with this one. 

JoelMcGuire's Shortform

What we owe the past 

(note: I know this post of the same title exists, but I haven't read it)

Under a (somewhat) plausible theory of wellbeing, you may want to consider the deep terrestrial potential of improving the lives of the dead. 

To explain requires some exposition. The two most prominent theories of wellbeing are hedonism and satisfactionism. The first claims that life is best for you when you feel best, and the second claims that life goes best when you satisfy your desires. 

 Satisfactionist or desire theories of wellbeing cleave into two further camps. One in which it's important you feel that you satisfy your desires. The other is "objective", where what is morally relevant is not that you think you're getting what you want, but that you actually get what you want. Note that the first type of satisfactionist would hop into the experience machine with the hedonists. Also, in the second theory, if your partner cheats on you for years and you never found out, it would consider that your life is worse -- which many people find intuitive. 

I think Parfit had a thought experiment regarding Actual Satisfactionist theories where a man burns his whole life with a profound desire that there is life on another planet. He lives. Earth is alone. He dies. The next day, scientists discover life on mars! It was there the whole time. He never felt his desire satisfied, but it was, and his life was better for it. 

This strikes some readers as strange. However, for those willing to bite this bullet, I offer you more. Imagine the "Life on Mars" case. Except, this version has a twist. Life wasn't there the whole time. Mars was dead. However, the year after he dies Elon rockets to the red planet with a whole terrarium full of critters and founds a permanent colony.  

Is the man's life better off for having his desire fulfilled? If you think it's plausible that his life in fact improved, you can probably guess where I'm going with this...

The dead are many. We should look not towards bettering future lives, but past lives if the following is true: A. We care bout people's actual desires getting satisfied (and satisfying dying wishes counts), B. there are fewer people in the future than in the past and C. The dead carry coherent desires that we can satisfy.

Point B. is true if we believe Eliezer about AI and there's nothing we can do about it. And to offer a candidate to fulfill point C: Children. Every one of your ancestor's, and you had lots, I mean lots of them, by revealed preference wanted you to pass on their genes. Well now it's down to you. 

So if you're into a weird variant of desire theories (can't stand them myself), you may want to reconsider that vasectomy. 

New cause area: bivalve aquaculture

These are good thoughts.

Most biorisk ppl seem to be largely focused on humans; vaccines, bunkers, PPE etc. But biorisks among the global food supply is also a massive failure point (crops are often clones or single species & are a lot harder to PPE lol).

Yeah, I'm surprised I haven't seen more on crop bio-risks. They also seem way more targetable as a potentially deniable act of war (and with a less clear ladder of escalation). I.e., you can create viruses / fungi that'll disproportionately impact your enemies crops / animals but that's harder to do for humans. USA depends more on corn than China (I think). 

When developing nations' protein intake increases as their GDP rises, if they already have robust bivalve industries, they may be far less likely to be as chicken/pig heavy as current western nations. Especially if one seeds good sustainability messaging years prior etc.

Arguments around it being hard to get people to change their dietary habits are far less strong for these regions.

I like this idea of "protein lock in", seems like a potential sub-cause of its own if it hasn't already been explored. 

New cause area: bivalve aquaculture

This cause may serve another purpose: accelerating recovery from catastrophe. 

If bivalves are relatively resistant to reduced sunlight events, then building up a robust aquaculture economy where bivalves are raised in kelp forests (as is sometimes done), could help us not starve in such an event. 

Allfed has probably considered this. 

In general, I think it makes sense to be very bullish on for-profit EA schemes with low risk of harm / at least moderate expected effectiveness. I'm not sure if this is one of those cases, but if it is, I think that's a decent reason to press the fund button. 

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