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 psychotherapy to 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.

Wiki Contributions


Five Books Influential On How I Think About Global Poverty

(I deleted a previous comment of the same content that was posted using another account. I reposted the same comment using this account to clarify that I am a researcher with the Happier Lives Institute.)

Hello and thank you for your post! I know this is just a book review, but I have some quibbles with your comments on measuring SWB / happiness.

First quote to comment on:

However, it is very difficult to measure utility. Our best studies produce counterintuitive results, such as that income only increases life satisfaction to the extent that you are richer than people around you. 

Broadly, I disagree that the best studies using SWB produce counterintuitive results. Engaging pretty broadly with the literature, I've been pleasantly surprised by how often subjective well-being (measuring well being by asking people how they feel about their life), conforms with intuitions. 

Specifically, I don't think the book you linked (or the SWB literature more broadly), implies that "income only increases life satisfaction to the extent that you are richer than people around you." This would mean that 100% of the benefit of an increase in income is due to comparison / relative income effects.  I think that claim is stronger than what the evidence supports. And even if there was evidence that a large share of the benefit to income gains came from favorable comparisons -- I'm not sure that's too counterintuitive for high income countries (LMICs would be another story!).

Some papers find that when the authors include a measure of relative income this diminishes the magnitude or significance  of the absolute income coefficient (normally log(income) , e.g, Boyce et al., 2010). But other papers find that a large absolute-income effect remains when adding a measure of relative position (income relative to average area income e.g., Tsui et al., 2014). 

Aside: Most of the evidence about the importance of relative versus absolute income is from high income countries. We don't know much about the relative versus absolute income question in low and middle income countries. 

Our innovations in Togo and the future of cash distribution

Hello, this is quite exciting!

How do you expect this to change the marginal cost of delivering an additional cash transfer compared to the method GiveDirectly currently uses? Assuming GD spends $100 delivering every $1000 CT using its previous method, what would it look like with MobileAid?

Has GiveDirectly received any pushback about this new method? Such as if there's negative effects on those who self enroll and are excluded or general privacy concerns from users (regardless of their merit)?

Measuring Animal Welfare: Philosophical Foundations, Practical Indicators, and Overall Assessments

Hi George (presumably),

I found this report very helpful as someone who mostly thinks about measuring the well-being of humans. I think it lays things out nicely : philosophical foundations, then the types of measurement instruments, ending with a discussion of  "state of the art" of what's commonly used.

I also appreciate how the report lays out assessments of reliability, validity and interpersonal comparisons of utility for each class of welfare indicators. However, I think a reader like myself would feel more oriented if each section concluded with a summary assessment of the measure. 

This is obviously difficult. Ideally we'd have some sort of model like 


Where we just plug in values 0-1 into each parameter and presto get the best measures -- but I'm not sure if that's coherent.  

 It only seemed like I got a sense of your overall judgement in the executive summary and somewhat in the concluding discussion. And for this overall judgement I would have enjoyed reading more reasoning (like how much better are physical health and behavioral indicators than physiological indicators?)

You say:

I argue that rather than relying on any given assessment the best solution is to use a combination of methods that rely on different techniques. The ideal system would use a combination of qualitative measures, expert opinion based measures, an index of animal-based measures, and standalone measures such as preference testing or qualitative behavioural assessment.

But I'm not sure I follow. Would the ideal system use a combination? I think the ideal system would have a single measure that perfectly tracks what matters, no? Could you explain what you're thinking here? 

My last question is: what are y'all's thoughts on making across species comparisons? This is the  question that really interests me, and most of these indicators presented seem to be much, much  more suitable to within species assessments of welfare. 

Please keep up the great work! 

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

Hi Akash, It's been a few months since your comment but I'm replying in case its still useful.

I'd be curious if you have a "rough sense" of why some programs seem to be so much better than others.

General note is that I am, for at least the next year, mostly staying away from comparing programs and instead will compare interventions.  Hopefully one can estimate the impacts of a program from the work I do modeling interventions. 

That being said let me try and answer your question. 

One of the reasons why CTs make an elegant benchmark is there are relatively few moving parts on both ends. You inform someone they will receive cash. They then do what needs to be done to receive it, which at most means walking a long long ways. The issues with "quality" seem to arise primarily from A. How convenient they make it. and B. whether the provider reliably follow through with the transfers. Biggest variation I'm concerned with comes with administrative costs as share of the CT, which we still have very little information on. But that's a factor on the cost not effect side of things. 

From this simple description, I expect the programs that do best are those that use digital or otherwise automatic transfers AND are reliable. I don't think this is situation where the best is 10x as good as average, I'm not sure there's enough play in the system (however 3-5x variation in cost effectiveness seems possible). 

I think GiveDirectly is a good program and quite a bit better than the average government unconditional CT (can put a number on that in private if you'd like). I'm not saying it's the "best" because as I started this comment by saying, I'm not actively searching for the best program right now. I have some ideas for how we'd quickly compare programs though, I'd be happy to talk about that in private.

However, I can't help but comment that there are some hard to quantify factors I haven't incorporated that could favor government programs .For instance,  there's evidence that CTs when reliably ran can increase trust in governments. 

But the decision maker isn't always a donor. It may be a mid-level bureaucrat that can allocate money between programs, in which case intervention level analyses could be useful. 

This might become even more important in analyses of other kinds of interventions, where the implementation factors might matter more.


But if they do, I think they could inflate the effect size of CT programs on life satisfaction (relative to the effect size that would be found if we used a measure of life satisfaction that was less likely to prime people to think materialistically).

I agree. It may be worth it to roughly classify the "materialness" of different measures and see if that predicts larger effects of a cash transfer. 

Very fair Jack! 

I agree its uncontroversial that if there are multiple elements of well-being that don't necessarily have equal weights -- there will be a point at which getting more of the thing that matters less will be better overall than getting the thing that matters more. 

Since Kaj included the  Bryan Caplan quote it seemed to imbue the comment with a bit more opinion on what matters. 

And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you feel about now. And I agree: happiness is overrated.

Getting back to the point. If a potential parent is told "you'll be less happy but your life will have more of (whatever meaning means)." I'm trying to express, that if that potential parent asked me if they should take that tradeoff (from a self interested perspective), I'd say "make sure you're getting a heck of a lot of meaning for every unit of happiness you lose".  

Full disclosure: I'll probably make that tradeoff even though it doesn't seem like a great bargain. 

As a deeper aside, it's odd that he defines meaning pretty much as life satisfaction / evaluation which is normally "how you evaluate your whole life". They obviously aren't the same to people if they give opposite rankings of countries. 

Why do EAs have children?

It's hard for an anti-natal social movement to last the test of time.

I'd like to hear more discussion about this. If EA as a value system should last a very long time, is it sustainable to  convert enough other people's children to make up for the fact that we aren't (presumably) having as many?

An example motivating that question follows. It builds on / rephrases one of David's replies. 

Assuming there was only EAs and ineffective egoists (and the value systems are incompatible), and 1. each group was equally good at converting people from the other. 2. EAs had a relatively lower birthrate -->  Then the set of values belonging to humans in the LR would be dictated by ineffective egoism. 

This toy model illustrates that for EAs to have their values represented in the future of this admittedly  weird world they have to either A. have as many kids as the ineffective egoists, B. get better at converting ineffective egoists or C. A combination of the two that comes out to stability or growth of the population holding EA values. 

If I may abstract a bit from the Shakerism example...

I agree that we should be able to "convert" people more cheaply than other movements could in the past. But that doesn't mean EAs relatively lower fecundity couldn't pose some issues for the LR sustainability of the movement.

The question of "can we sustain the movement over time?" is whether 1. we can convert other peoples children more effectively than competing ideologies can convert ours and 2. that we can do so enough to make up for our relatively lower birthrates.

(Assuming we don't find a third way involving beings that don't die).

Maybe we convert our way to a stable transmission of values across generations, but I'm a bit skeptical since I'm having a hard time imagining a specific instance of a value system that made up for a lower birth rate by having a higher conversion factor. Catholicism? Since the priests / monks were prohibited from having children?

compared 132 different countries based on whether people felt that their life has an important purpose or meaning, African countries including Togo and Senegal were at the top of the ranking, while the U.S. and Finland were far behind.

I haven't explored this in depth, but it's worth stressing that this indicates that measures of meaning appear to lead to a much more counter intuitive ranking of countries than LS or happiness.

If meaning matters more to well-being than happiness or life satisfaction, then we are probably very, very wrong about what makes a life go well. 

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