Why I’m suss on wellbeing surveys

TL;DR: hunter-gatherers would probably rate themselves at a similar level to us on subjective wellbeing surveys, therefore they’re silly.

Big claims from wellbeing surveys

The Happier Lives Institute (HLI) has recently made big claims based on WELLBYs (wellbeing-adjusted life years) interpreted from wellbeing/​life-satisfaction surveys.

Their report on StrongMinds (a charity which offers therapy to people in developing countries to improve their mental health) estimates StrongMinds as being between 0.75× to 12×as effective as The Against Malaria Foundation. Great news if true!

Their analyses suggest some surprising findings, such as that the grief from the death of a child equates to a loss of 7.26 WELLBYs [Appendix 2 of The Elephant In The Bednet] while an individual treated in the StrongMinds program can expect a gain of approx. 3 to 20 WELLBYs!!! [Figure 2, Don’t just give well, give WELLBYs: HLI’s 2022 charity recommendation]

HLI have just produced a study supporting the use of wellbeing surveys in charity evaluation: Can we trust wellbeing surveys? A pilot study of comparability, linearity, and neutrality.

Something doesn’t sit right with me about the use of subjective wellbeing surveys for serious charity analysis. I will try to articulate it with this reductio ad absurdum argument:

Are you happier than the Sentinelese?

Consider the Sentinelese people of the North Sentinel islands, who are one of the few remaining uncontacted (mostly) peoples in the world, and who probably live with a similar level of technology and culture as the average human did 20,000 years ago.

I ask myself: If asked to rate their life satisfaction in a survey, would the Sentinelese people rate their life satisfaction as significantly lower than mine?

If NO (my personal suspicion):

  • Using WELLBYs, the implication is that technological and cultural development over the last 20,000 years has largely been a mistake for wellbeing and that a spontaneous return to pre-agricultural society would be better for global wellbeing. This is an established worldview, but one I think should be discarded because of its drastic implications.


  • Is the difference in WELLBYs significant enough to justify the hundreds of trillions of dollars and hours of effort and suffering (and negative WELLBYs) that have gone (and continue to go) into technological, economic and cultural development to give us our modern lives?

    • This seems unlikely to me given the magnitude of resources and negative WELLBYs that have been spent on development efforts

My conclusion is that wellbeing surveys shouldn’t be used to compare wellbeing on a global scale, because doing so leads to absurd conclusions. Instead, objective measures of health, wealth, education, and access to amenities should be used at this scale, with wellbeing surveys possibly useful when comparing similar groups.