Many people who self-identify as Effective Altruists or are otherwise intensely committed to their work seem to struggle with prioritising their health. For the purposes of this article, I will adopt the following definition of 'health': 'the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical, and emotional challenges'. I want to explain what I think is the best argument for why those people should by default invest ~10-20% of their time in highly evidence-backed health-promoting activities. I don't claim that this argument is entirely original and I apologise if I forget to cite some sources that inspired me. In short, engaging in health-promoting activities likely induces:

  • Better quality of life;
  • Resilience to burn-out and adverse life events;
  • Increased productivity; and
  • Positive impact on one's immediate social circle.

Rather than make an ethical case for why one should intrinsically value quality of life, I claim that improving health, and thus quality of life, is instrumentally important to effecting positive change through one's work. There is obviously a point of diminishing returns to be derived by improving one's health, but this is subject to individual variation. As a rule of thumb, if you fail to meet any of the criteria on this list, especially if you score 10 points or higher on the depression questionnaire, I think you should invest more in your personal health.

Avoiding burn-out is important for being effective

Effective Altruists might find it hard to invest in their health, and thus quality of life, over work that seems incredibly important to others' lives or the long-term future. Due to this common disincentive for self-care, the EA community is well-aware of the consequences of burn-out:

  • Poor life satisfaction that leads to decreased work quality or even withdrawal from high-impact roles;
  • Depression or anxiety that results in lost opportunities for personal growth and positive impact;
  • Long recovery times, which can further induce a guilt- and anxiety-ridden spiral in which one feels like they aren't helping others or making meaningful life progress; and
  • Loss of health-promoting routines such as sufficient and regular sleep, exercise and social support, which further exacerbates health problems.

Burn-out is clearly counterproductive to having a positive impact through one's career, but I think some EAs are motivated to endure low quality of life and thus a high proximity to burn-out. In my model, a person with consistently poor quality of life is dancing on the cliff edge of burn-out, perhaps blindly teetering into an unstable 'buffer zone' that feels highly stressful, but survivable. I do not think that walking close to the cliff edge is a good strategy for maximising impact if one wants to be robust to the perturbations of adverse life events, such as acute health problems or the loss of support networks.

I think one can decrease the risk of burn-out by:

  • Developing an awareness of the warning signs of imminent burn-out (i.e. learning what it feels like to be on the cliff edge);
  • Modulating life stressors such as work commitments where possible (i.e. backing away from the cliff edge); and
  • Increasing one's pre-burn-out buffer zone by directly improving personal health (i.e. erecting signs and barricades at the cliff's edge).

The first two interventions might require first-hand experience of burn-out, which is undesirable and potentially costly, and the freedom to reduce life stressors, which is not always available. In any case, I think that most people can reliably improve their quality of life and decrease their risk of burn-out by developing a foundation of health-promoting routines. Additionally, developing a good relationship with a psychologist and taking regular supervised depression/stress/anxiety self-assessments might help with detecting and averting imminent burn-out, though I caution against relying on this alone.

Investing in personal health can increase productivity and develop resilience

It might seem intuitively obvious that, all else being equal, healthier people are happier and more productive. Personal health, including quality of life, generally improves work output:

Prioritising personal health has a positive impact on others

Prioritising one's personal health can improve the well-being and impact of others in one's immediate social circle by establishing group norms such that people are more likely to engage in health-promoting activities. For example, if one's work/social culture rewards people who skip self-care in favour of more work, prioritising personal health can feel harder. Motivation to exercise is significantly improved by exercising with friends. Good workplace culture might help reduce the risk of employee burn-out.

A culture that accepts and rewards vulnerability with regards to sharing mental health experiences seems obviously more enjoyable and cohesive than a culture that punishes people for their vulnerability. By sharing my mental health experiences with friends and some coworkers, I have established trust and elicited others' mental health experiences. I believe that workplaces and social circles that have an explicitly open culture regarding mental health can encourage people to speak up when they need further support and circumvent the inefficiencies of individuals struggling alone when resources are available on request. An open mental health culture could be signalled by:

  • Offering Mental Health First Aid training in the workplace;
  • Explicitly endorsing a work-life balance;
  • Expressing one's openness to conversations about mental health; and
  • Facilitating low-pressure social opportunities to discuss mental health concerns.

What should I do to improve my health?

I think the highest priority chronic personal health interventions for individuals are those detailed here. I also find some of these recommendations for reducing stress, improving sleep and generally improving mental health useful.

The highest priority acute personal health interventions (e.g. for people experiencing imminent burn-out) might be, from personal experience:

  • Establishing an informed and capable support network;
  • Seeking appropriate diagnoses and therapies from mental health professionals; and
  • Seeking joy through shared activities.

Personally, having a broad support network of friends, family and a mental health professional who I am comfortable being emotionally vulnerable with has been critical for maintaining good mental health. I think that relying on a small support network (e.g. a single close partner) is generally suboptimal as this can increase the per-person emotional fatigue each support network member experiences to unsustainable levels. Sometimes, the fear of negatively impacting friends has made it hard for me to seek support. To avoid this, I recommend explictly establishing what each person is comfortable with providing, support-wise (e.g. for what hours are they contactable and for what issues). I have found the internationally accredited Mental Health First Aid course useful as a support person for friends and family and strongly recommend this to anyone who wants to be more effective at helping others in their immediate circles.

Antidepressants, which generally require a prescription, can be effective at improving mental health for some people. Receiving a diagnosis from a mental health professional, whether it be acute (e.g. depression, anxiety) or chronic (e.g. autism, ADHD), has been validating for people I know and enabled them to access a host of useful therapies. From personal experience, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be helpful in preparing for and resolving mental health perturbations.

The most effective acute mental health intervention for me has been seeking joy through shared activities. If these activities can be accomplished with people one feels comfortable being vulnerable around, and include physical exercise, exposure to nature or other intrinsically health-promoting activities, then the benefits are magnified. I recommend budgeting weekly time for activities that are intrinsically joy-seeking, ideally with others who have similar goals.

Some caveats

My model assumes that 'mental health' and 'physical health' are somewhat overlapping and interdependent subcomponents of 'personal health' as there is seemingly a complex relationship between the two. I think it is possible that the best intervention to improve health for some people might ostensibly target either physical health (e.g. exercise) or mental health (e.g. psychotherapy), but plausibly many interventions to improve one dimension of health have a positive effect on the other. I therefore think it is best to approach the problem of improving personal health by iteratively establishing a collection of routines that by default seem likely to improve personal health and life satisfaction. For example, regular exercise, sleep and social routines can be useful for improving health and are relatively easy to maintain compared to irregular activities.

I additionally assume that, for the reader of this article, improving personal health is a good default strategy for increasing life satisfaction. This may not be true if, for example, the reader is stuck in an unfulfilling career, restrictive financial situation, or damaging relationship. In those cases, 'improving personal health', when a realistic goal, may require a multi-pronged approach to eliminate the extraneous factors that are compromising health (and likely one's other goals, such as work) and introduce health-promoting routines. I do not want to trivialise the difficulty of, for example, changing careers without financial support or leaving an abusive relationship, but I think that health-promoting routines, when achievable, can also serve as a grounding mechanism to help tackle those extraneous problems.

People who believe, for example, that transformative AI is imminent might find it hard to rationalise investing time in personal health that could be spent working to prevent existential risk. To these people, I say:

  • Improving personal health likely induces nontrivial benefits to worker productivity and robustness; and
  • In the event of, for example, long transformative AI timelines, investing in one's personal health over the intervening period likely greatly improves healthspan, and robustness to age-related cognitive decline and other diseases of ageing that can impede work.

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:16 AM
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Thanks for writing this Ryan! I think it's valuable for many EAs, myself included. I have found my mind circling around this idea that "health is instrumentally useful" for some time now and you've made a strong case for it.

I'm just gonna write here about my thoughts on improving my exercise, and maybe somebody else will relate.

I don't exercise enough, because of 2 excuses: (a) today's work is more pressing than exercising, I can delay until another time; (b) exercising properly takes some time investment to prevent injury, and it's not worth investing the time

I think these concerns come from a mindset of greedily maximising impact, leading to minimising self-care. Of course, my approach is not ACTUALLY maximising impact because personal health is instrumentally useful. But without careful thought it's easy to fall into the heuristic which says "maximise the amount of time thinking about EA stuff" - I think the actual process of living an impactful life involves a much more nuanced thought process than this heuristic.

It helps to hear this message from you, Ryan. It's somewhat given me license to devote more time to exercising.

Thanks for this post, Ryan! 

I just have two additional points I think might be worth adding. 

I think (1) you might be able to do more about burnout without having experienced it than you imply, and (2) that it's worth a reminder that having a support network isn't enough: you have to use it. 

On the first point: 

I think you can have at least some sense of the early warning signs of burnout without having experienced it. People often talk about sudden lack of sleep, bad dreams, greater than usual friction in personal relationships, and a few have reported lying to friends and family about their present emotional state and stress levels. I'm sure there are other signs too -- I'd be interested to see if there's a less arbitrarily produced list somewhere. 

On the second point: 

You mention building a support network, which I think is clearly a great idea! But a support network needs to be used. 

I personally haven't experienced burn-out, but (I think?) I have experienced some early warning signs. I've found it really helpful to over-share these symptoms with my closest friends and family, and I'm also lucky I get to share it with my manager who has been non-judgemental, and consistently emphasises that doing so is a good thing (he doesn't want me to burn-out either!). I don't always find this easy to do, but I've never really regretted it. They often encourage me to do the things (many that you suggest) that will help me return to my usual state, and I think very often I wouldn't be able to do these things without encouragement. 

Hope the points helped, and thanks again for the post :)