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Aug 31, 2023 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Growing a stronger evidence base for happiness

There is a great deal of advice about what actions we can take to increase happiness, but it is not until recently – with improvements in measurement and analysis – that we are able to investigate and evaluate these strategies more rigorously.

So how can we grow, improve and build happiness evidence?

Here, we look at findings from ‘A systematic review of the strength of evidence for commonly recommended happiness strategies in mainstream media’, conducted by psychologists Dunigan Folk and Professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to explore happiness and what’s next for happiness research and its application. 

Happiness – positive moods and feelings – helps us capture an affective or subjective experience, and can be used to determine how someone feels in the moment or in the long-term. It is often considered as a goal and desired outcome of effective policy and community action.

Happiness is an important dimension of personal subjective wellbeing, and is measured regularly at the national level, as part of the Office for National Statistics’ UK Measures of National Wellbeing Dashboard. Tracking happiness helps us to understand societal progress beyond GDP and is an indicator of whether wellbeing is improving at a national level (Levelling up Mission 8) as well as an indicator of population public mental health.

Building happiness is a goal for society as a whole, as well as individuals, and has taken hold in popular culture. It is not surprising then that there are so many recommendations, tips and strategies that claim to increase or improve happiness. With the sheer volume of information, it is difficult to know what activities or interventions to focus on and what will be the most effective.

Given the wide-spread interest and promotion of strategies in the media, how confident can we be in the claims? Knowing what activities or interventions are most effective is key to good decision making at individual, community and national levels. 

It is also useful to know what doesn’t work, especially if it might not be safe, or simply because the ideas continue to look ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ even when they’re not. 

The review

To explore how strong the evidence is for some of the most common strategies for increasing happiness, Folk and Dunn conducted a systematic review of the published scientific literature.

To inform the review, they first identified and coded media stories that provided recommendations on improving happiness, They found that the five most frequent suggestions were:

  1. Expressing gratitude
  2. Enhancing sociability
  3. Exercising
  4. Practising mindfulness/meditation
  5. Increasing exposure to nature 

They then searched for published scientific literature that tested the effects of these strategies on any aspect of subjective wellbeing. While they identified over 500 studies that examined these popular strategies, only 57 met the contemporary standards for rigour to be included.

The replication crisis: an opportunity for improvement

Since the early 2010s, there have been growing concerns about the credibility of behavioural science findings and the ability to replicate results. The validity of psychological research is important to inform effective real-world application in mental health care, medicine, education, business, and politics. In response, research has been re-examined.

In reviewing the happiness evidence base Folk and Dunn sought to investigate whether previous studies met the latest standards of research. In order to do this, they only included studies that are:

  • Well-powered – Papers that study a large sample of people help to ensure statistical credibility of any results.
  • Pre-registered – Researchers outline the study, how they’ll test their hypothesis and data analysis plans, before they begin. This helps prevent researchers from selectively reporting findings afterwards or making conclusions that are too specific to a particular sample or study.

Small studies that are not pre-registered often lead to findings that can’t be repeated. They can be useful for uncovering initial or exploratory insights that indicate what further evaluation is needed, and at large scales, to confidently confirm results and use the findings in practice.   

Correlational, exploratory and longitudinal studies are important and can provide valuable clues about possible causal relationships. However, experimental designs, like the ones included in this review, are ultimately required to confirm any causal findings.


The review suggests that a strong scientific foundation is lacking for some of the most commonly recommended happiness strategies. The paper does not determine that a particular action will not increase happiness, but concludes that there needs to be more robust evidence to have confidence that they work. 

This is to ensure time, energy and effort is targeted and guided by the best scientific guidance. As well as ensuring that the strength of the evidence behind strategies is not overstated. 

For more details, analysis and key findings on specific strategies, read the full paper. You can also find out more in a recent podcast.

In a follow-up paper, due to be published in January 2024, Folk and Dunn explore their findings further, highlighting existing strong evidence for strategies that may more reliably promote happiness. These include being more sociable, as well as governments and organisations providing financial support for underprivileged individuals.  

They conclude that “happiness research stands on the brink of an exciting new era, in which modern best practices will be applied to develop theoretically grounded strategies that can produce lasting gains in life satisfaction.”

What’s next? Growing and confirming the evidence

Happiness research has achieved a stage of maturity, where focusing on confirmatory experimental results is now possible. We need to continue to increase our understanding of what works to improve happiness because the concepts and strategies have already been so widely embraced and disseminated by the media.

This is important and worthwhile as it helps us recognise and stop trialling ineffective ideas, for example in innovation funds. It also assists us in assessing if what is being done in practice has evidence behind it and if there are research gaps.

The Centre’s evidence reviews include academic and grey literature, for instance evaluations by civil society, public sector, research providers and businesses. These studies can be as robust as those in academic journals but they tend to be harder to find. We search and collate this type of literature in our reviews by hand, as we find them. Pre-registered studies are easier to find, which will make this process quicker and simpler. 

Creating a bank of learning

The Evaluation Task Force is launching the Evaluation Registry, which will provide a single online focus for evaluations across government for the first time.

The Registry is being built to drive evidence-informed policy making and will be available to all government departments. When it launches, it will have one of the biggest stores of information on social policy evaluations in the world, containing over 2,000 papers from the outset. 

In the future, proposed funding will allow the generation of new evidence in critical areas of policy making.

Further knowledge

For more resources, analysis and learnings about happiness and wellbeing:


Feb 3, 2022 | By Nancy Hey
Levelling up and measuring wellbeing
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Jul 20, 2023 | By Elena Mylona
Learnings from time use data 2020-2021
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Jan 22, 2018 | By Andrew Clark, Sarah Flèche, Richard Layard, Nick Powdthavee and George Ward
Origins of happiness: new research
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Wellbeing Evaluation top-up fund announced to accelerate learning
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ONS4 evaluations: what works to improve personal wellbeing?
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Measuring progress and quality of life in the UK: May 2023
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Measuring wellbeing inequalities and progress in reducing them
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