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:
- Happier workers are generally more productive. Happiness generally increases with gratitude practise, regular exercise and appropriate levels of stress.
- Poor mental health is associated with higher rates of absence from work and lowered productivity. Depression might be improved by cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant medication.
- Low back pain is the primary cause of work absenteeism and disability worldwide. Low back pain is best prevented by exercise.
- Cognitive ability is enhanced by adequate sleep [1, 2] and exercise [3, 4, 5]. It seems plausible to me that increased cognitive ability enables higher productivity.
- The body's immune system is benefited by exercise, adequate sleep, a health-promoting diet and lowered stress. A stronger immune system might reduce the risk of some diseases negatively affecting work.
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.
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.