There appears to exist a tension in EA, between the ethical demands of our privileged position and the physical demands of our bodies. It has been argued that you can have other goals next to doing good effectiveley, however it seems that the moral weight remains pressing. Under that weight individuals seems to struggle to maintain themselves and to find the balance between their happiness and the impartial happiness of others. Experiencing these forces I wanted to write this post, both to suggest ideas that might resolve some of the tension and in exploration and conversation on ideas currently present.

On philosophy:

Is it good/wise to take consequentialism to its extreme, where personal happiness is only justified as a way to further maximize impact? [1]

The attempts to justify happiness trough a consequentialist leaves me skeptical. Whilst the arguments all seem valid and reasonable, there would also be a substantial push towards motivated reasoning. We are wired to satisfy our animal needs, motivated trough happiness, our cognition in an attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance would then attempt to justify self care to our moral selves.

Maybe consequentialism should not be applied absolutely. Humans are not perfect moral agents, and moral philosophies are not designed to be attainable. Like Jesus's sinlessness in Christianity, we are all "sinners" but that's okay. Its the striving to be better that makes better.[2] As decades of Christian philosophy and theology show however, this doesn't eliminate the question of how to balance the forces, but it might lead to decreased tension.
In this way having the EA community around is a nice way to normalize, instead of the impossible philosophical demands its just slightly smaller, philosophical demands. 

Happiness in the EA community:

Mental health seems like a prevalent problem amongst the community. My readings on the forum only furthered my suspicion, whilst looking for things to motivate happiness, I found only more reasons for anxiety, rather than less.

This begs the question, is EA an inherently anxiety inducing question?

If this is the case, would it then be wise to have personal happiness be a central theme in the community,[3] rather than something that pops up only later and connected with other ideas of efficiency.  [4]

The two main ways I see this being effective are:

  1. Increasing wellbeing [5] will make all the lives saved trough various interventions more valuable. [6]
  2. A community filled with happy people is more appealing to join than one riddled with mental illness. [7]

It has been argued frequently that happier people are more productive, and able to stick to their careers for longer, and thus reach peak output more reliably. However happiness is a difficult concept to deal with. Several questions immediately spring to mind:

  • Is it possible to lower your bar for happiness, so you can be happy with less, and have more resources for altruism?
  • Is there a most effective route to happiness, and is it cost effective to find it for each individual?
  • Assuming happiness exists on a gradient, at what point do you get diminishing productivity returns?

An empirical answer to these questions could be a great boon. Research into them would undoubtedly provide value to the community. [8] From a global wellbeing perspective happiness is also important, and it is possible that working on individual happiness in a way that might be broadly applied could be more effective. 


This post is far from offering a solution or an ideal balance to strike, but hopefully it can shine some new light on the conversation, and lead to some practical insights. 

One of the biggest deathbed regrets is that people worked too much, my fear is, that as effective altruist we won't be exempt from this regret, and thus must balance our altruism with our personal happiness. So that with the perspective of old age, we might look back on a good life well lived.


I would be incredibly grateful for any feedback on this post, or references and arguments I might have missed. 


  1. ^

    Another friendlier argument is: You have the best possibilities of working on your own happiness, so the marginal QUALY's from self care are higher. 

  2. ^

    This could lead to the risk of EA's seeing themselves as a moral elite, regardless of actual results. It is a tricky balance.

  3. ^

    This would be convenient for me, as personal happiness and effectiveley doing good are my main two intrinsic goals. So whilst I tried to maintain intellectual honesty, there might be some motivated reasoning here

  4. ^

    The main caveat with this line of reasoning is that it might water down the core of EA, and as such reduce the overall communities effectiveness. 
    I am unfortunately not savvy enough to properly measure the balance of gained effectiveness trough community growth and less loss of productivity compared due to mental illness, compared to the effectiveness of having a more focused community. Furthermore even if I was savvy enough, I would be incredibly biased.

  5. ^

    Wellbeing can be used as a measure of happiness, as outlined in this report outlines a new measure for wellbeing across interventions: WALY's

  6. ^

    If you don't believe human lives are inherently nett-positive, than this is an even more urgent consideration, as elaborated in this post, creating more lives that might not have positive wellbeing could be detrimental.

  7. ^

    This claim seems to make some intuitive sense however  I can imagine a world where it does not hold.
    Some arguments against this claim could be:

    • Altruistic people are naturally more prone to mental illness, and would rather join a community of like minds.
    • Pure happiness might make EA seem more cultish and thus put people off.
  8. ^

    Happiness as a field might however be large enough that the marginal returns are small, of this I am uncertain.

  9. ^

    And as you might be able to tell by the obscene amount of footnotes, I recently read the precipice.
    First this post was written blending happiness and self care. I have since decided to refocus on happiness alone, since it provides most of the tricky balancing issues I struggle with. Self care is easily accepted and might still put the bar too low.