Severe Depression and Effective Altruism

by garibaldi1 min read26th Mar 201918 comments

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Hello all, I am writing here as a bit of a cry for help in a way. I have long been interested in but also overwhelmed by the idea of effective altruism and how much good I could and should be doing. I have fallen well short of these ideals but to an extent I do not feel overly guilty and obligated to give a large amount of my income unless I become extremely depressed and self-reflective. At this point my scrupulosity and perfectionism kicks in and I beat myself up to a large amount (but still with a feeling of paralysis...rather than taking action, so far).

I have inherited a large sum of money from my Grandma, which my Dad has effectively given to me to help me buy a house where I live, where housing is relatively expensive. I know that I am likely to also inherit a substantial amount from my parents in future as an only child of relatively wealthy parents (because they worked hard and saved a lot rather than them inheriting money themselves, plus property value growth has been very high where I live).

When I'm at my most depressed I feel like giving all this money away and that I should give any inheritances away in the future (and retain enough to live a minimalist satisfying life), as some effective altruists manage to do. However this feeling isn't from compassion or "wanting" to do it, it's from a deep seated sense of guilt and a sense of duty/obligation. I can't escape the logic of effective altruism and I start to feel terrible about lives being lost due to me. I know my parents want me to use the money on a house which most of the time I feel comfortable with but I feel extremely uncomfortable with when I'm depressed.

I then convince myself that I must stay depressed, must harness these feelings of guilt to make sure I do the most good. Because depressed me will do more good than normal me. This doesn't really seem illogical to me from a utilitarian point of view because if I force myself to suffer and become more guilty, I will make much more difference to other's lives than if I become more "mentally stable" and ignore my obligations. If I gave away all this money I've just got and really angered my parents, who I love so much, and completely broke their trust, then committed suicide, I would still make more of a positive difference to the world than selfishly getting "better" and spending it on myself.

I get that people might say the best option would be to get better but also embrace effective altruism, however, unless I'm feeling depressed I tend to let myself "get away with it" and I don't donate much. When I am feeling more "normal", I also don't want to oppose my parents when it is them gifting me this money for a specific reason.

I suppose I feel like I am a failure if I don't give a substantial amount away and I'm wondering if anyone else has had these feelings but managed to reconcile them? Selfishly, I don't want to feel so guilty and obligated. I get it's kind of ironic to be asking for help/forgiveness on this though because I'm pretty much saying I want to feel better about doing less good on a website that is about promoting doing the most good.

Thank you.

Gary.

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Before reading the rest of this, please consider calling the suicide prevention lifeline for support. This may seem like generic advice, but the lifeline is a really valuable resource.

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EA-specific notes:

You're not alone. A lot of people involved in EA struggle with scrupulosity and feelings of guilt, and many have suffered from depression (sometimes related to the aforementioned feelings).

EA Peer Support is a Facebook group devoted to helping and supporting people through their personal problems. I'd really encourage you to check it out; there are a lot of warm-hearted, thoughtful people in the group.

Also, Kelsey Piper often writes about the feelings of guilt/scrupulosity that arise from EA thinking, and how to handle them. This is one good post about that; there are many others, and frankly there are many worse ways to spend time than just reading her entire Tumblr to find all the things she's written about self-care and emotional management.

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I'm not a therapist or any other kind of counselor, but speaking from my own viewpoint/experience, the most important thing you can do is ensure that you are in a safe, stable position. No one is obliged to force themselves to suffer for the good of others; I can't think of anyone I've ever met during my time in EA who would argue otherwise.

Even you currently feel that there is tension between your personal comfort and your capacity to do good for others, remember that this tension needn't be a permanent feature of your life. I've known other people in EA who once felt the same tension, but eventually resolved it, with help from their friends and the wider community.

It's okay to care about yourself. It's okay to care about your parents. You don't need to make all of your life decisions according to a single unified framework about doing good through charity; in the long run, some kind of balance that includes a regard for your own health is much better.

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On top of everything else, I think there are compelling reasons not to betray your parents' trust even if it seems like that would have good consequences. To quote Holden Karnofsky:

I try to perform very well on “standard” generosity and ethics, and overlay my more personal, debatable, potentially-biased agenda on top of that rather than in replacement of it. I wouldn’t steal money to give it to our top charities.

A similar point exists within the broadly-endorsed EA Guiding Principles:

Because we believe that trust, cooperation, and accurate information are essential to doing good, we strive to be honest and trustworthy. More broadly, we strive to follow those rules of good conduct that allow communities (and the people within them) to thrive.

One thing you said really stood out to me

At this point my scrupulosity and perfectionism kicks in and I beat myself up to a large amount

This is a state of mind I used to often find myself in. Then a good friend of mine said to me something I found very profound.

You don't feel currently feel guilt for being unable to cure cancer by snapping your fingers, why do you feel guilt about all the other ways in which you're not perfect?

I then read through the replacing guilt series written by MIRI's Executive Director Nate Soares. It helped me a great deal, maybe it will help you too :)

"If I gave away all this money I've just got and really angered my parents, who I love so much, and completely broke their trust, then committed suicide, I would still make more of a positive difference to the world than selfishly getting "better" and spending it on myself"

This is not true. You obviously matter to your parents and probably to many more people than you realize. But the biggest loss would be to you, and that's the most important thing.

I also think it's untrue that you'll do more for the world depressed. I've been through similar states and I know how compelling and obvious that idea can feel. But when I emerge and my mood is higher, I see how deluded I was. I was living in constant excruciating pain hating myself. It was all I thought about. My productivity was low and my work of low quality. The only altruistic edge I possibly had was feeling undeserving of my resources. Most importantly, when my mood improves, I no longer feel the need to justify my existence by being self-sacrificing enough. I still want to do good, but it's less about what it means for me and more about the effect for others. I may have less lofty ambitions when I'm healthier, as you seem to observe in yourself, but I think my chances of real impact are much greater.

You sound like you would benefit from self-compassion. As I said, I suffer from really similar issues and it has changed my life. You're obviously very sensitive to the world's suffering-- why not listen to and be compassionate for your own? The best thing is it doesn't matter why you're suffering, whether you think you deserve it or not; you can always offer compassion just for the experience of suffering. I'd recommend Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.

Part of letting go of depression and self-loathing for me did involve accepting that I was a more mediocre person than the standard I used to whip myself to achieve. I don't think you can avoid mourning that ideal of yourself. But when I did, I pretty quickly saw that it was never me and that it came out of fear that my real self wasn't good enough. Turns out being mediocre isn't so bad when you don't think it makes you unlovable.

I don't think we have to justify our own mental health by how effective or altruistic it makes us. We're each just one person, but we have more control over our own well-being than we do over anyone else's. Imagine if you could lift someone else out of depression, how huge that would feel, what a difference you would see. The pain of self-hatred may be one of the most significant sources of suffering in the world, but it doesn't lend itself to SNT interventions as of yet. That doesn't mean it's not important! You're well-placed to help one person. Isn't it worth it to give that gift to yourself?

Something I wrote about my experience of being addicted to self-hatred and why: https://mhollyelmoreblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/14/kicking-an-addiction-to-self-loathing/

Gary, I can't agree more with Holly. I lost a friend to suicide last year and I can tell you that you are wrong that "If I gave away all this money I've just got and really angered my parents, who I love so much, and completely broke their trust, then committed suicide, I would still make more of a positive difference to the world than selfishly getting "better" and spending it on myself."

It is too narrow a view for one to think that one has made a positive difference to the world if he/she/they took his/her/their life. It is a gross miscalculation in discounting the depth of pain that will be impacted on others. It is not reasonable to think that there will be positive difference outweighing the negative impact. You are also not taking into account how much more good you can do in the future, if you keep trying to make a difference (in as evidence-based way as you can) and your potential multiplier effect if you continue to share with others how they can consider to do more good in their lives.


I only worked closely with this friend for a year. We were in social work and he was trained as a counsellor. Thus we were all well aware of mental health issues. I had not kept in touch with him for the past few years but he made a difference in my life — just like how he made a difference in thousands of people's lives. I am not exaggerating when I say thousands. On the day of his funeral, which was on a Friday afternoon, 500-600 people came. If it weren't a workday, there might have been more people. We all mourned the loss of this amazing human being. We wondered how he could have forgotten that he was loved by so many in this world — including his most immediate family members. We are dumbfounded that of all people, he did not prioritise his own mental health or to reach out.


I write this to emphasise the pain that people have to go through when their loved ones take their own life. Despite us not being close friends, I am impacted by his death. I, like many others, ask ourselves what we could have done to prevent that. I've reconnected with many friends from social work (I am no longer in this field) and more than half a year on, some of us still dream about him. This is how we are affected by his passing. We are all saddened, but the pain is most profound for his parents and family. They are living with this irreversible loss for the rest of their lives. For anyone going through severe depression, I hope that there is a tiny little gap in the mind for this note to slip through, "You are loved by many in this world. We want you to be around."


He was a counsellor. He was a paramedic. He was a social worker. All throughout his life, he was helping others. I cannot think of how the world is a better place without him because it is not. If he is still here, there would be much more laughter and he'd be of much more support in many people's lives.


By being part of the EA community, I presume that you care about doing good and to do the most good that you can. Me too. I have days that I can't function or get out of bed as well. I think this happens to more EAs than we'd ever be aware of. We are all not perfect, but we are all trying to apply the principles of EA and do what we can. It is important to be well in order to serve others better. On good days, you can think more clearly, be more strategic, be more collaborative and be more compassionate. Try to 'get through' the bad days — these are transient. When you've exhausted yourself enough, strive for good days and make the most of your bursts of productivity. I think that you will be able to do some good, if not a lot of good, on such days.


There is a big difference between empathic resonance and compassion. The latter allows you to do more good; the former leads to more burnout. I know, because I am more the former than latter. But we need to catch ourselves when we realise: https://www.matthieuricard.org/en/blog/posts/empathy-fatigue-1

I can't escape the logic of effective altruism and I start to feel terrible about lives being lost due to me.

EA is not to learn about the sufferings in this world and start living with unbearable guilt. EA is about learning about the sufferings - of present and future sentient lives - and figuring out how we can do more to alleviate these unnecessary sufferings. It's about realising that we have the potential to create a greater positive difference than what we are doing now. 

When I am feeling more "normal", I also don't want to oppose my parents when it is them gifting me this money for a specific reason.

Giving is just one way of doing good. You give when you can. If you can't use your money, use your time. If you can't use your career, use your skills. Help the EA community near you grow. Help them grow well. You never know when — but it is possible that you will start to influence others to start thinking about how they can do more to help others. 

At this point my scrupulosity and perfectionism kicks in and I beat myself up to a large amount (but still with a feeling of paralysis...rather than taking action, so far).

Surround yourself with good people. Try to find friends who are like-minded, understanding and compassionate to hang out with. When we lose ourselves in guilt, we procrastinate and we lose the opportunities to do more good. People care about you and you need to remember that people love you. By being altruistically inclined and constructive, you will be adding to the quotient of positivity in this world. 


Comparing yourself to others doesn't help make the world a better place. Doing the most good that you can is not equivalent to doing the most good in the group. You contribute what you can. Individuals make up the collective. Collectively, we make a greater impact in this world. 


Seek support. Be well, Gary. <3

Hi all.

I just want to say a big thank you to everyone for all the comments and feedback. I just read through all of them one by one and appreciate the advice and support in each and every comment. It was overwhelming to see the responses in fact (in a good way).

I am replying late because I didn’t actually notice my post had gone up, I think it took a few days for the moderators to pass it and honestly I wasn’t sure if such a post would be allowed on here, so thank you to the powers that be for making sure it was seen also.

I am seeing a psychotherapist and I have other issues in my life which have certainly been further contributing to my depressive state aside from my worries over effective altruism and “not being good enough.” With relation to effective altruism though, I do still think that depressed me feels a lot more driven (and yes, sometimes that is affected by negative feelings such as guilt) to donate more money. So forgetting any suicide follow up, which I’m glad to report has not been on my mind since this post, my gut feeling is still that “healthy” me feels less guilty and driven to assist in solving the ills of this world.

A lot of people’s posts have touched on the fact I’d be a lot more productive when healthy which I can agree on. However, I don’t necessarily feel like I would be more compassionate, and therefore my productivity would likely be on other goals, largely ignoring altruistic activities. It’s the kind of “I’m alright Jack” feeling when I’m ok as opposed to a sense of obligation if I am feeling some sort of inner turmoil, and I’m therefore more sensitive to other’s plight as a result.

I want to get better, for my own sake. But I think I may do more good from a utilitarian point of view if I remain depressed. I can understand some of the arguments to the contrary but I simply disagree with some of them when it specifically comes to my own experiences and feelings (whereas it may well hold true for others).

Therefore, I’m almost wanting to give myself permission to potentially be less utalitarian and altruistic by getting better (let’s assume in such a case that depressed me actually is more giving/effective). But it feels like a paradox because I truly want to get better, but that feels incredibly selfish if it will have a negative effect on the world from a utalitarian point of view.

I hope that makes some sense. It’s as if whilst I appreciate views pertaining to the fact I may be more effective as a non-depressed person, I want to feel that even if I was less effective/giving when in good health, I still have the right to get better. Right now, deep down, it feels like I don’t. That people can be compassionate towards their fellow man by saying I intrinsically “deserve” to get better, but in reality I don’t IF we assume it would have a net negative effect on the world.

I want to get better, for my own sake. But I think I may do more good from a utilitarian point of view if I remain depressed.

I feel moved to flag again that almost exactly the opposite of this has been the case in my experience.

In my experience, this overvaluation of depression, or fear about what might happen if you feel happier, is a really common concern among some types of creatives (though in their case it has more to do with inspiration than motivation). In both cases, I'd say it's probably an incorrect perception that results from the depressive state itself.

Hi garibaldi, I know that right now you feel like the only way you can do good is to make yourself feel bad. Based on your story, though, it sounds like you're still quite young, and life is long! Here are some ways you can help yourself meet your altruistic goals without feeling bad:

  1. Make friends who also want to help others. The EA Peer Support group or your local EA group are good places to start.
  2. Commit yourself to giving an amount you can be comfortable with whether you're feeling good or bad. For example, take the Giving What We Can pledge, which is 1% of your income for students or 10% when you're working.
  3. You say you're like to inherit from your parents in the future, but it sounds like you're concerned you won't be very generous with the money. Could you talk to your parents about those concerns and ask them to specify some percentage in their will that would be destined for charity? Ideally, they'd let you pick the charity (because the top charity will change over time), but perhaps they can decide if they're comfortable with you giving 5% or 25% to honour their legacy.

Thank you for this, there are plenty of others who feel the same way.While I never experienced these feelings in an overwhelming or depressing way, I've felt these same concerns of guilt for taking care of myself before engaging in altruism.

This SlateStarCodex post convinced me that my view was simply incorrect. To be an effective altruist is to do the most good possible, and to feel guilty or to shame others for only doing some good and not all of the good is counterproductive to EA goals - it hurts you, it hurts EA as a movement, and ultimately that will hurt the people you're trying to help in the first place. There is no "correct" line of how much to give, so to help us help others without feeling guilty, EA/GWWC has decided to draw that line at 10%. Feel free to go above, but it's absolutely not an obligation.

Of course, knowing you shouldn't feel guilty is easier than escaping the emotion of guilt, and nobody can blame you for the feeling. But I genuinely believe on an intellectual level that I ought not feel guilty for most of the good I don't do, and it helps.

Hi,

I'm a Psychology graduate.

If you or anyone else from Effective Altruism is struggling, please contact me! ♥

I'm not a clinical psychologist (I'm currently a social psychology MA student) but I started up my studies because I love people and want to help them. So at least I can listen (on Skype / Whatsapp).

My Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OpnCgs

Do you know how badly our world needs people like you? people who are thinking about these problems? people who want to do something about it? I want to counteract your logic in that a life taken early is in anyway good for the world. If you are in a position to pursue an impactful career or donate money than you are able to help so many more people than if you were to end that life. Do you know how many people in our world aren’t paying attention to the problems of our world? Or intentionally choosing to ignore them? The fact that you care and want to help already puts you in a different space - one where you can begin to work toward doing the most good. 


EA, in the early stages at least, seems to be a bit like a hammer - it’s a new tool in your kit but then the world starts to look like it's filled with nails. Instead of creating nails that didn’t exist, try researching and finding the ones that already do and work toward addressing those problems first. You don’t need to make “grand gestures”, just start small and level up as you learn more.  


You have a unique opportunity - you know you’ll have money coming in which means you can plan for how to use it now and maximize its impact. You seem to be stuck on a very extremist view of spend it all or donate it all but I’d like to offer up some more suggestions - you can:

  • downsize and use it as runway while you do a career change or get a relevant degree
  • invest in EA projects or organizations
  • start your own project or build a business that can generate even more money to donate toward EA causes
  • start a small fund and invest in the EA community by sponsoring trips to the EA global events for first-timers
  • save it and continue learning more about EA - great ideas are out there, you just have to look! 

As for your perception that being depressed is the most effective way to motivate yourself to do good - anything sounds logical when you are trying to rationalize and justify your feelings of unworthiness. Being depressed closes you off from the world - you are less likely to engage with others, pursue new opportunities or challenges, your creativity diminishes and a whole host of other issues crop up with depression. Therefore, it’s not a good mindset to start from - if you can’t help yourself, how can you help others?

If we’re trying to take on big problems affecting the world we have to keep a positive mindset around the intent of trying to do good and acknowledge these are deeply complex, time-consuming challenges. It’s important to step away and renew your wellness and happiness, in order to come back with positive energy and an open-mind - growth-oriented minds are more creative and complex problems necessitate innovative solutions. 


I recently heard a great parable that people, particularly those who care deeply about helping others, tend to be like vases and water is flowing in and they feel inclined to tip over and let the water spill out to others here and there - but over time they tip over so far they fall and shatter. Whereas if you just stand tall and let the water fill you up, it will eventually overflow and spill out to all those around you.

 
The point is that you must first and foremost get your own life in order, take care of yourself and when you are in a stable state - go for it! the world benefits more from people who are comfortable and confident in choosing to pursue impact and change… those paralyzed with anxieties because they are feeling like everything in their life is a trade-off, tend to spend more time worrying than participating and helping. Happiness, wellness and a state of peace are contagious. Lead by example.

Hi Gary. I hear your pain, and I know full well that you're not alone in feeling this way.

First, I want to echo aarongertler's point and ask you to consider reaching out to the suicide prevention lifeline. I volunteered for many years with one of its affiliates, and had some of the most meaningful and rewarding conversations in my life with some of the callers who rang my phone. I can't promise that you'll find a lot of people who will be familiar there with the principles of EA (though you may), but you will without a doubt find many caring and empathetic people, who will be eager to hear you out.

I also have to disagree with you: depressed You will not do the most good. Depression is a deadly but curable disease. I think I understand your reasoning for thinking that your suicide could be a net positive, but the argument is fallacious: the alternatives aren't not living or living an entirely selfish life. The output of a long, productive life in which you work a little bit more than the average person to effect positive change in this world, either by donating a decent portion of your income or by working for good or both, can easily dwarf any one-time sum you're considering, especially if that one-time sum is forthcoming anyway. You can be scrupulous about that sum, invest it wisely (and remember real estate is also an investment, one that you can typically have a fairly good likelihood of being able to liquidate and donate when it's no longer useful to you), live a more frugal life, etc, but I'd strongly encourage you to not do so at the expense of your mental health. Non-depressed You can be a force of good for the world, for your direct community, and for your family. And your empathy can do a lot to support and grow the EA community as well. Remember that the problems we're trying to solve will be here in the medium-term regardless of how much money you donate, so the work to do good is much more of a long marathon than a sprint to give the most away. So our pace has to be sustainable, we have to be kind to ourselves, we have to develop strategies that allow us to grow the number of people who can participate in this project of recognizing that even a small portion of the privilege we have can be tremendously helpful to many others. We need people who care as much as you do in this world. Your depression risks depriving the world of one such person, not to mention bring enormous pain and trauma to those who love you.

I'll close by saying that I think the "most good" tagline can sometimes be very harmful, if read in the wrong light. I think of it as an encouragement for us to do the "most good" with the money that we donate or with the work we do, if the work we do is oriented in that direction. But probably a more reasonable heuristic is "do more good". How can we do more good today that you were doing yesterday? And how can we do more good over the long run? Research on how to do the "most good" with a given skill or dollar amount is certainly hugely helpful in finding that direction, and that's where a lot of the EA work comes in. But I don't think you should take it as a commandment to do the absolute most good you could possibly do. All of us will fail at that, even those of us who are most committed and prepared to do so. I suspect you're already aware of many of the ways in which you can take steps towards doing more good. I'm going to guess you have already taken some of them. And I'll argue that non-depressed You will be in a better position to take more of those steps in the long-run.

Bottom-line: take care of yourself. You matter, even if you (like all of us) can always do better.

What works for me in situations like these is to find a compromise position that both parts of me are OK with. For you, maybe this would look like: bringing up effective altruism with your parents just to see how they feel about it. Or purchasing a house for yourself in a lower cost of living area and donating the rest. Or using the money to retire early somewhere inexpensive and spend your time working on EA projects.

Just an additional point to consider:

If you (and therefore other people similar to you) decide to act in a way that causes a lot of harm/suffering to yourself or your family, and you wouldn't have acted in that way had you never heard about EA, then that would create a causal link between "Alice learns about EA" and "Alice or her family suffer". From a utilitarian perspective, such a causal link seems extremely harmful (e.g. making it less likely that a random talented/rich person would end up being involved in EA related efforts).

So this is an argument in favor of NOT making such decisions.

But the most important reason not to kill yourself is that you matter. You are a light of sentience in this world and you are suffering. This is also the most important reason to focus on your own health and happiness right now, even if it feels selfish.

Thank you for the care & attention you've put into this post.

I think spending time attending to your mindset & life circumstances is almost always a very effective thing to do.

In my experience, it has been hard to be genuinely, enduringly helpful to others when I don't feel okay about myself or my own life.

If I gave away all this money I've just got and really angered my parents, who I love so much, and completely broke their trust, then committed suicide, I would still make more of a positive difference to the world than selfishly getting "better" and spending it on myself

This is almost certainly incorrect. Your altruistic impact will probably be distributed over a long time horizon (unless you have inherited a truly staggering sum of money, on the order of billions of dollars, and even then it would probably take many decades to figure out how to give away that money in a sensible way).

This long time horizon entails year after year of trying to make effective things happen. It will be much easier to embark on that journey if your fundamentals are right – enough savings to take care of yourself & those you love, relationships with friends & family in a comfortable place, enough slack to be able to explore many different possibilities for ordering a life.

I have several thoughts on this, but I only have time for one right now:

I'm not a psychiatrist, but I would suggest that the thoughts we have when we're mentally healthy are the valid ones, and the thoughts we have when we're depressed are the twisted, irrational ones.

I know that when you're depressed, it seems that you're seeing things more clearly, but I think that a psychiatrist would tell you that's not the case.

So if your healthy self feels okay about not performing up to your depressed-self's standards, I would strongly suggest to defer to the healthy self (by postponing all decisions until you're healthy again).