Happiness course as a community building exercise and mental health intervention for EAs
There is an evidence based community-based happiness course here which is very easy to run. I propose it as an exercise for EA groups to build stronger communities and help address mental health issues among EAs.
Running the course would involve finding a venue and making a weekly 2-hour commitment for 8 weeks.
1. Mental health issues among EAs
2. EA community building is hard
Values are, to a large extent, shaped by our relationships, so fostering meaningful connections between EAs is a high priority.
An introduction to the course
‘Exploring what matters’ is a community-based course designed by a charity called ‘Action for Happiness’ in the UK. The course involves weekly sessions of 2 hours which include mindfulness exercises, videos and content about happiness research and reflection and discussion exercises. The courses require little-to-no training to run and the materials are freely available online.
The themes for each week are ‘What really matters in life?’, ‘What actually makes us happy?’, ‘Can we find peace of mind?’, ‘How should we treat others?’, ‘What makes for great relationships?’, ‘Can we be happier at work?’, ‘Can we build happier communities?’ and ‘How can we create a happier world?’. More details here and I’ve collected the course materials here.
How to run a course like this yourself (suggestion)
Appreciating that trivial inconveniences may prevent people from running a course like this who might otherwise intend to do so, here’s a likely suboptimal, but easily implementable template for how to run a course.
If you want to run a course, I recommend that you do step 1 below right now. It will likely take you less than 5 mins and will substantially increase the probability that you end up running a course that could add value to your life and to those in your community.
Potential hazard: figuring out an evening that you can commit to taking two hours out for may be hard. If it’s easy, then this will take <5mins.
Send a message to your local EA group group chat
Important: you need to make a Doodle poll and put in a doodle poll link
Go to doodle.com → sign up/log in → create group poll → Title meeting ‘AFH Course’, don’t bother filling in description → put possible times as 7-9pm for whichever weekday evenings work for you
You need to edit the days you’re available as well (highlighted)
Sort out venue and follow up message with details (if enough people respond to poll)
This is pretty straightforward and if you’ve completed step 1 then you’ll be likely to complete step 2 despite the trivial inconvenience.
Before the first session, it may be helpful to review the course leaders guide and consider printing out the course booklets in this folder. No worries if you don’t want to print out the booklets—it’s not really necessary, although it would be advisable to have writing materials for participants/encourage them to bring some. You’ll also need to show some videos, so a projector could be useful, but a laptop + internet connection will also be fine.
Evidence for improving happiness
The course has been evaluated by Founder’s Pledge (here) with the support of the Happier Lives Institute. They recommend it as a cost-effective way of promoting happiness in developed countries, although there are more cost-effective approaches in the developing world.
Life satisfaction (+1.0) on a scale of 1-10
Gains from employment vs unemployment are (+0.7) and gains from being partnered are (+0.59)
Reduction in depression by 50% of a standard deviation, reduction of anxiety by 42% of standard deviation
Increases in compassion and social trust
I recently spent 3 months in Frankfurt as part of an internship. During this time I began to engage more seriously with EA ideas and joined the local EA Frankfurt meetup group. I suggested running this course with some members of the meetup as a community building exercise to promote happiness. One of the members of the meetup generously offered to host the sessions in her apartment.
Organising the course was very low effort: I created a Doodle poll the first week to assess availability and then printed out the session plans each week. The sessions themselves were very enjoyable.
Due to scheduling issues I was only present for 6 out of the 8 sessions.,
Although we didn’t run any kind of formal experiment, everyone who attended the course recommended it as a valuable exercise. Some attendees reported sharing material with family members and one attendee invited along family members who also found it valuable.
Value for community building
From a community building perspective I think the course has several advantages. Firstly, it offers clear value to the participants in terms of the expected improvements to their wellbeing. Secondly a lot of the content centred around the importance of healthy relationships for fostering happiness and advice on how to develop them. This primed participants to recognise the importance of relationships and I believe helped to form better relationships between participants. And finally it was a shared experience that helped to create a sense of shared history for the participants.
While making members of the community happier is in of itself a worthy goal, particularly given the high rate of mental health issues, providing EAs with the tools to lead happier lives also has the potential to make the community seem more desirable and help bring more people.
I can also report on a personal level that a lot of my reservations about engaging with EA were due to worries that I wouldn’t be able to set clear boundaries, as I’ve been burned in the past by trying to be excessively altruistic (as I’m sure many have). Providing new EAs with tools to lead happy lives and engage in appropriate self-care when engaging with EA may make potential EAs more comfortable with taking EA ideas seriously.
Part of the course emphasises accepting yourself, your experience and the world as one part of being happier (where happiness is defined as being satisfied with your life). Accepting things as they are may reduce our motivation to resolve the problems in the world.
The happiness course increased people’s compassion and self-trust, but it may have reduced the extent to which they view things analytically (i.e. they may engage more with their emotions to the detriment of their reason).
However, on the flipside, accepting things makes it less painful to look at the world and oneself in a more accurate way, and healthy engagement with our emotions is important for sustainable engagement with EA.
This course might also get more EAs interested in promoting happiness, which may in some ways be good, but possibly detract from work on longtermist issues.
And of course, there’s the time commitment involved, but I (and attendees) generally found the courses quite enjoyable. For me it felt more like leisure time and thus a complement to work, rather than a substitute.