Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Is the Effective Altruist Lifestyle Unhappy?

Effective altruists try to make philanthropy an important part of their lives. This can mean making lifestyle changes such as switching careers, diets, hobbies, and even personalities. The idea is to optimize - if not literally, then generally - the amount of good one can do in his or her lifetime. EAs share a fundamental goal with many non-altruistic individuals: the determined pursuit of money.

For an EA, pursuing money is a noble goal because it allows one to save lives. The more money you have, the more good you can do. But there is a lot of research on the downsides of extrinsic goals on one's happiness. This research should be notable to EAs because they tend to satiate some of their intrinsic goals by pursuing extrinsic goals. Is focusing on extrinsic goals such as the pursuit of money likely to cause EAs to be unhappy?

Ingrid, Majda, and Dubravka write that"...extrinsically oriented people suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance problems, they are more competitive and have less satisfactory relationships." This is consistent with research from many different schools of thought.

Self-determination theory suggests that psychological health requires the meeting of three needs:
  • Autonomy: The sense that you are in control
  • Competence: Learning and developing skills
  • Relatedness: Building strong relationships with others
Achieving extrinsic goals does not usually help us meet these needs, thus chasing these goals over intrinsic ones can wreck your happiness.

Fortunately, there is some hope for those wanting to earn to give. Ingrid, Majda, and Dubravka go on to write that, "It is often more important why a goal is being pursued than the content of the goal." Having the right reasons for pursuing a goal can trump whether or not the goal is intrinsic or extrinsic.

They explain, "It's not the money, it's the motives... If the motives are social comparison, seeking power, showing off, and overcoming self-doubt, then attaching importance to money is detrimental for well-being. On the other hand, spending money on others promote well-being, because we invest in our social relationships and thus fulfilled the need for relatedness."

It seems that the earning to give lifestyle is not fundamentally connected to the pursuit of goals that produce unhappiness. By focusing on the good that earning to give can cause, one can pursue extrinsic goals even while fulfilling intrinsic goals. However, even if the ideal effective altruist does not fall into the trap of chasing unfulfilling goals, this may still be a concern for effective altruism as a whole. Particularly when one is young and still trying to earn enough to make their first major donation, it can be difficult to avoid feeling the pressure to maximize dollars and utilons.

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