When I was younger, I was extremely struck by the realization that my choice to donate or not meant the difference between someone else’s living and dying. A lot of decisions started to look very starkly wrong.

I remember telling my dad that I had decided it would be immoral for me to have children, because they would take too much of my time and money away from better causes. “It doesn't sound like this lifestyle is going to make you happy,” he said.

“My happiness is not the point,” I told him.

A few years later, I was deeply bitter about the decision. I had always wanted and intended to be a parent, and I felt thwarted. It was making me sick and miserable. I looked at the rest of my life as more of an obligation than a joy.

So my husband and I decided that it wasn't worth having a breakdown over. We decided to set aside enough for our personal spending that we could reasonably afford to raise a child. Looking back at my journal entries from before and after the decision, I'm struck by how much difference it made in my outlook. Immediately after we gave ourselves permission to be parents, I was excited about the future again. I don't know if or when we'll actually have a kid, but just the possibility helps me feel things will be all right. And I suspect that feeling of satisfaction with my own life lets me be more help to the world than I would have as a broken-down altruist.

I've attended Quaker meeting for the last ten years. The founder, George Fox, gave his followers this advice in 1658: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing.”

Quakers have tended to emphasize the part about “that of God in everyone,” with its implication about equality: how can it be right to keep slaves, for example, if the slave has an element of the divine in her?

But my favorite part is that word “cheerfully.” Fox was a man who had been jailed and beaten for his religious beliefs – surely he had a right to be bitter. Quakerism later developed a stern and dour style, but George Fox was not about that.

Some things I can do cheerfully. It turns out that giving up children was not one of them. Other people would have no problem giving up parenthood, but I suspect that everyone has something that would cause an inordinate amount of pain to sacrifice.

So test your boundaries, and see what changes you can make that will help others without costing you too dearly. But when you find that something is making you bitter, stop. Effective altruism is not about driving yourself to a breakdown. We don't need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.

Comments (6)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: ullmann 18 December 2014 01:25:33PM 3 points [-]

For someone who is new to the concept of EA, I found it incredibly helpful. Thank you for this.

Comment author: Patrizia 02 November 2016 07:57:51AM 2 points [-]

Thanks. Taking care of the others means that in the same time we have to take care of ourselves. If it doesn't happen and it costs us too much there will be more people who do not agree in order to help others: everyone needs to be happy. But if we live without taking care of the others we'll fail in our self realisation that asks to do our duty, but our duty cheerfully, with joy, not as a heavy weight.

Comment author: silvia_fromargentina 22 February 2017 06:09:31PM *  1 point [-]

(excuse my english ) is a very useful concept, thanks ! is always a bad history of suffering behind those who do harm to others. when we feel better with our lives is the best moment for help other people. is very importan than everyone get their goals beacouse when people feels realize is ready to help the others.

Comment author: ashley_p 02 May 2017 03:49:28AM 3 points [-]

Thank you so much. This has become a sticking point for me, because suddenly my need to be altruistic also became a need to punish myself for how lucky I am. I was overwhelmed by everything I had, which also made it hard to just move forward and DO SOMETHING about what I'm seeing. Thank you for mentioning cheerfulness. I'm finally starting to DO, and notice when I can't do.

Comment author: tamama 25 January 2018 06:56:03PM 1 point [-]

Truly lovely post. Thanks

Comment author: Jan 06 September 2018 01:37:22PM 0 points [-]

This is an interesting concept. Giving is a cheerful act not a punishing and resentful event. Agree. From my perspective giving means leaving behind self interest and receiving the satisfaction in invisibly giving and witnessing the development of others. I say invisibly because much of my giving through online forums is not experienced in a face to face encounter. We may receive a thank you or an updated report but we are not there to see first hand the results. Yet this type of giving frees myself from the false pride I could receive through potential accolades. This is because it is not about me but it is about us as humans and us as a community helping each to feel safe, secure, happy and fulfilled. In these cases, I am choosing to focus more on the lives of others and not my own. And consequently it allows me to see more clearly the value in others and to be a distance observer of their growth. I think it helps me remember there are those who live in poverty and in a small way I can help.