Photo courtesy of Michael Plant

Can tracking happiness improve your wellbeing?

The Happier Lives Institute’s Michael Plant on why he wants to move from ‘a welfare state to a well-being state’
October 4, 2023

Holding his suitcase, surrounded by screeching hen party guests and a raucous chorus of “Sweet Caroline” on a Saturday afternoon on Liverpool Street, Michael Plant is a long way from the philosophy conference he attended hours earlier in Rome.

We are here to discuss Plant’s charity, the Happier Lives Institute. “The aim is to get to a world where everyone lives their happiest life,” he begins, oat milk cappuccino ordered, vape activated. Then he cringes. “But I still find it hard to take seriously myself. It’s just a bit twee, isn’t it? It sounds naive, but that is the aim—and it should be the aim.”

Plant (“an old-fashioned utilitarian”) is pragmatic in his approach. He argues that improving lives can be as important as saving them. Research by the Institute has concluded that spending $1,000 on group therapy in low-income countries—the Institute advocates for a charity called StrongMinds—is a more cost-effective way to improve wellbeing than investing in mosquito nets.

Plant employs five people full-time and is funded by private donors connected to the effective altruism (EA) movement, which is dedicated to doing good in an ambitious and unsentimental way. “I really like the idea of effective altruism. Other people matter. Doing good is good. Doing more good is better,” says Plant. But his comments are punctuated by puffs on his vape. He knows I’m going to bring up Sam Bankman-Fried, the EA-linked founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX who is accused of defrauding his investors of billions. It has been “kind of a rocky time,” he concedes. “The funding that was there has disappeared.”

The only other time he puffs on his vape with such urgency is when I ask about his early education. “I am not going to tell you,” he teases. (Read: he went to Eton.) “I know people who leaned into it and went onto Made in Chelsea. I was not popular or good-looking enough,” he says, despite being six foot five with a quiff of blond hair.

Instead, Plant, now 34, became interested in wellbeing after doing a school project on whether money equals happiness. “I think before then I was probably planning to become an investment banker.” After university, he spent an uninspiring year working for the Conservative MP Michael Fallon. He did a PhD in Philosophy at Oxford and founded an app for tracking happiness before setting up the Institute in 2019.

Other people matter. Doing good is good. Doing more good is better

Plant believes in tracking happiness (“simply, out of 10”) as a way to transcend social ideas about what is enjoyable. “In my case, I was in the army reserves and tracking my happiness during a weekend,” he says. “Throwing grenades and crawling through the bushes: I must have been having a great time. I looked back on it and totted it up and I think I was like a four out of 10.”

On a wider scale, the World Happiness Report has been going for a decade, collecting similar information. “Now we have data, we can achieve the Enlightenment idea of having a society based on happiness. For the first time in history, we can do it in a scientifically rigorous way. In my organisation, bizarrely enough, we’re at the tip of the spear.”

But being at the tip of the spear involves scrutiny and scepticism. In March, the charity assessment organisation GiveWell issued a report asserting (very politely) that the Happier Lives Institute had overstated the benefits of investing in StrongMinds over the Against Malaria Foundation.

That hasn’t deterred Plant from his goal “to move from a welfare state to a wellbeing state”. But now, he’s heading off to watch The Weeknd in concert with his “what my parents call a ‘real doctor’” fiancée. His own happiness is important, too.