The Underspecified Normie

You’re well-aware of the benefits of a healthier lifestyle: less pain, more energy, more mobility and autonomy, a higher life expectancy, and so on and so forth ad nauseam.

Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn’t compel you to action. Your behavior mostly follows simple hyperbolic discounting - healthy actions pay off in the future, but the future is far away, and your TV / smartphone / snack is much closer.

But even if the knowledge that Health Is Good is uncompelling, maybe some other perspectives or frames might prove more fruitful for improving your health?

The Guilty Conscience

All your life you’ve been told what to do: “Go to bed already!” “Do your homework!” “Brush your teeth!”

At some point you internalized those voices: It’s 4 am. I should’ve gone to bed a long time ago. Why am I still awake? What’s wrong with me?

You’ve been thinking this way all your life. Surely this strategy will start working any day now.

If only there was an alternative...

The Investor

Investment bankers aren’t exactly known for their healthy work-life balance. You were no exception to that rule. But at some point you realized that taking care of your health is just another way of investing, namely in your own human capital.

Not all such investments pay off. But if you know where to look, you should be able to find some with outsized returns in longevity and productivity. Time to crunch some numbers!

And in the hopefully distant future, when it’s time for the final accounting, your most profitable investment might just turn out to have been - yourself.

The Decision Theorist

You are in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma with future copies of yourself. You could stay up all night to read that ratfic, but that would be defecting against tomorrow!You. And that line of thinking doesn’t end well.

So you go to bed early, and expect tomorrow!You to do the same, for the same reason.

The Competitive Gamer

The abstraction of “hitpoints” in RTS and FPS games has taught you an unfortunate lesson. People can perform at their peak ability until they reach 0 hitpoints, at which point they die. Recovery is instant as long as you get help from a medic or medkit.

Speaking of which, how do you get those in real life? After gaming for 36 consecutive hours, you aren’t feeling so well...



The Sim Gamer

You’ve just returned from the funeral of your friend Competitive Gamer. RIP. You deeply regret your past inability to convince them to give your favorite genre a try. They might have lived!

You grew up with The Sims, which models people as Sims with a bunch of needs. These needs decline over time and must be recharged. Failing to do so has unfortunate repercussions like falling unconscious or even getting a visit from the Grim Reaper. Conversely, taking care of your Sims both makes them happier and more productive. Now that’s a lesson for real life!

You hope your other insights from the game will be just as applicable. Your first purchase in The Sims was always the most expensive bed, as it paid for itself via reduced sleep length. Hopefully that new gold-studded bed in your room will do so, as well. Those interest payments aren't cheap!

The Slacker

Others might call you lazy, but you know better. You’re preserving your slack. Maybe 80-hour workweeks help those around you get ahead right now, during times of stability. But those times won’t last forever. Eventually, a disruption will occur - whether it be an economic crisis, a pandemic, or some altogether inconceivable thing -, and then their overworked bodies will constitute a dangerous lack of slack.

But that doesn’t apply to you. You’re prepared.

The Parent

It’s been weeks since you last slept for more than three consecutive hours. You’re running on fumes.

But at least your newborn is safe. That’s all that matters.

The Commitment Contractee

You’d sure love to stuff your face with those cheese crackers. Unfortunately, past!You promised not to do so, and staked your entire fortune on this promise. If you break it, your fortune goes to Effective Evil an evidence-based anti-charity which has committed to cause as much harm with your donation as possible.

Yes, these cheese crackers look extremely appetizing. But are they so tempting that you’re fine with destroying 14000 +- 20% QALYs (as independently assessed by GiveBadly)?

For now, your willpower holds out.

The Aesthete

Others call you superficial. They say you only care about outward appearances, that your character judgments are only skin-deep. They aren’t entirely wrong, but your reasoning might surprise them.

Our sense of aesthetics and beauty evolved to value things like symmetry and an unblemished skin because those are proxies for good health or a low mutagenic load. Conversely, our sense of disgust ensures cleanliness and hygiene, and thus protects us from disease.

So when you take care of your skin, and judge others when they do not, that’s not because of how they look, but because of what it says about their values.

After all, it’s a well-known fact even in physics that you can tell a lot about someone’s inner workings from merely observing their enclosed surface.

The Creature of Habit

When you first started doing daily situps, you struggled a ton and almost quit many times. Now you’ve done them for the last 891 days. On good days, your habit almost takes care of itself. On bad days, your streak keeps you going.

And anyway, your streak is approaching the next round number. It would be a shame to quit now.

The Anti-Fan

For a long time you defined yourself entirely by your dislike of the Apple guy. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ever win against your nemesis when they’re a billionaire and unaware of your existence.

But then he died in a rather dumb way. And you realized... that your pettiness was immaterial in the face of death? Not a chance! You realized that this was finally your chance to surpass him at something, to be better than him.

That was the day you became a health nut. And after many years of single-minded dedication, you're now a health expert. Your advice saves people. In public, you say that’s what motivates you.

But in the privacy of your own mind, you know better.

The One Responsible

It’s a well-known fact of organizations that, for any goal, unless there’s exactly one person who is ultimately responsible for it, one who has ownership of the goal and resources to accomplish it, one who gets praise or blame based on the state of that goal... unless there’s exactly one such person, that goal likely won’t be accomplished.

At some point it occurred to you that even doctors can’t be considered to be ultimately responsible for your health. After all, none of them will get remotely sufficient credit if your health improves, or blame if it deteriorates.

And after you looked around some more, you realized that nobody had taken responsibility for your health.

And then you had to make a choice.

The Knight of Order

Things are even worse than The One Responsible realized. You know that uncared-for health won’t stay constant; time and circumstance will continually worsen it. You have to expend considerable effort on your health just to tread even.

You are a Knight of Order, and your indomitable foe is Entropy.

The Genre-Savvy

If life is a story, you’ve already read a thousand ones like it. You know the tropes - the father dying from liver failure after a lifetime of heavy drinking, the actor dying to a drug overdose, the party animal crippled for life after a drunk-driving accident... You know how this goes.

You’ve read those stories. You’ve yelled at their protagonists. And if you’re the protagonist in your own story, the one thing you won’t accept, the one thing you’ll go to great efforts to prevent, is for the readers to yell at you.

The Marshmallow Kid

You participated in the famous Marshmallow Experiment as a kid, and managed to hold out. Everyone praised you and promised you a bright future. How conscientious you were, so full of willpower, able to withstand such temptation. This was your claim to fame.

In truth, you only succeeded because you didn’t like marshmallows. Fortunately for you, the scientists didn’t offer chocolate instead.

But nowadays that’s all moot. Everyone knows you as the Marshmallow Kid. It’s part of your identity. You still feel the temptation to stuff yourself full of unhealthy food, or to binge-watch an entire Netflix series. But you’re known as untemptable. So you resist, because that’s who you are.

Who cares to which extent the Marshmallow Experiment even replicated?

The Other Marshmallow Kid

You also participated in the Marshmallow Experiment, but you couldn’t hold out. Nobody blamed you, but you heard what they said to that other kid, the patient one. You put two and two together: you were doomed. You’d succumb to any temptation.

With your future already ruined, you figured you’d at least read up on the experiment. You learned about hyperbolic discounting, and saw a glimmer of hope. Maybe you could mitigate temptations by moving distant pains and gains into the present?

Nowadays, whenever you feel tempted to stay up late, you mentally visualize yourself the day after. When your back hurts from sitting all day, you remind yourself that this pain foretells chronic health problems, and imagine having them in the present. You’re even considering getting one of those questionable electric shock bracelets.

So life is bearable. But occasionally you daydream. What if it had been a Chocolate Experiment instead? You would've nailed that!

The Author

You are the author of this post. Your experience with health is spotty. Health seems endlessly complicated. Your doctors’ visits raise more questions than answers. You’ve seen arguments that increased healthcare spending does not result in better health outcomes. You have a sense that in our inadequate civilization, some professions which are purportedly about health may be partly LARPing. And you sure wish that your body had come with a manual.

But you might not be the only one who feels this way. Maybe you should write about this topic on LW?


And thus we come to you. Did you find your own perspective represented, or were there any glaring omissions? Did you find this post edifying, or failing that, at least mildly amusing? And how do you relate to your own health?


21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:44 PM
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It's time for me to shill for Big Pharma again.

I spent years trying to come up with a mental strategy that would reliably generate willpower, all to no avail. To my knowledge, there is one (1) way to cut through this Gordian knot, and that way is amphetamines. (UPDATE: And psychedelics.)

  • It is easy to get a psychiatrist to prescribe you amphetamines.[1]
  • If you request generic drugs over brand-name, they're pretty inexpensive.
  • Amphetamines greatly reduce one's appetite; Adderall was originally sold as a diet pill. For the first time in my life, I could empathize with those people who just forget to eat.
  • Health risk is minimal.[1:1] In fact, on account of the caloric restriction[2], you could make a solid case that amphetamine supplementation actually increases your expected lifespan.
  • In my experience (and many others'), amphetamines reliably inhibit akrasia.
    • People on this site often conclude that akrasia is their primary bottleneck, and then try to solve that problem with a more elaborate to-do list system. I've been there, and it's ineffective. Dextroamphetamine is effective.

  1. SSC: Adderall Risks: Much More Than You Wanted To Know ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. LW: Fasting Mimicking Diet Looks Pretty Good ↩︎

The Health-Privileged

You never spent a lot of time thinking about your health. You have a normal appetite and good metabolism, and have no trouble eating a bit less when you realize that you need a mirror to see your private parts. You don't get a lot of allergies, auto-immune issues or early-onset this or that. You enjoy the outdoors on some weekends, but nothing extreme. You don't bother with lifting, yoga, running or other exercise for the sake of exercise. A bike ride through nature here and there, a hike or two while on vacation, playing catch or Frisbee (not "ultimate") or shoot some hoops with the kids or buddies here and there. You are not ripped, only moderately toned, but you don't care. You get sleepy around midnight, so staying up all night playing video games just doesn't happen. Your job is sitting in front of the screen, so you naturally feel the need for moving your physical body once you are done with your workday. You sort-of judge those who look obese or have bad skin in their 30s or 40s, or those who eat McJunk for lunch daily. Life is good. Health is just not a thing you worry about.

Then you get a heart attack at 65 after shoveling snow in your front yard for a couple of hours.

Yup. A "Check Your Privilege" perspective was on my shortlist of things to write about. E.g. here's a couple of LWers who are aware that they're lucky that their weight stays at a healthy level and doesn't change much no matter what they do.

It is in my drafts, as well... "Privilege is invisible to the holder"

The Pessimist

You are concerned about your health. But you don't feel empowered to do anything about it.

Health looks to be complicated; exercise, diet, cooking, and so forth. Other people can do it, it's easy for them, and they are doing it now. You hope to be at their level one day, but, right now, you feel like you're missing something foundational. You feel like you're trying to build a skyscraper out of mud and sticks, like you have so far to go before you can even begin to think about your health and its complexities. You're surrounded by health grad students and you're just entering health Kindergarten.

Besides that is a gnawing feeling that maybe good health is intractable - that something about Western life is causing us to be less healthy and more obese, and we don't currently know what. We may never know. Billions of dollars and millions of man-years will go into searching under the streetlamp for the causes of bad health, and 10,000 years pass before surviving humans finally adapt through natural selection.

The Engineer

Surely I can automate this. 

I just need to create a system where I naturally go to bed and wake up at my desired times with no effort? Let's see... 50 100-watt light bulbs hanging on a timer above the bed in the morning, WiFi scheduled house lights that get increasingly dimmer and lower color temperature over the day, black and white smartphone after a certain time. Heck, this WiFi router already has easy-to-use child control software built in that I can to automatically cut off Netflix past a certain time of night. I got this. (I actually only have 10 light bulbs hanging over my bed, but I'm considering adding more so it does more than wake-me-up and functions like light therapy.)

This notion comes quite naturally to me, and I do some of it myself - e.g. shutting down the PC with Windows Task Scheduler after a certain time, same with the WiFi router. But what always trips me up is that if you set up such a system, you'll always eventually find a way to circumvent it. So such a setup usually works fine for a few weeks, then I find a way to temporarily disable it, despite my safeguards to the contrary, and from that point on, I either deactivate the whole system or watch myself go through the arduous temporary-disable routine every day.

I also experienced systems becoming less effective over time, but thankfully I find many drop-offs eventually stabilizes at some level of effectiveness above zero. I might be doing things a bit differently than you though, I don't have anything as strong as the computer just fully turning off. I think I would get fed up with that, it's too strong, too all-or-nothing. I prefer a larger number of smaller nudges and softer barriers. The phone turning black and white was one of more surprisingly effective tricks, psychologically it makes it 'feel' like I'm up too late, without me really being conscious of it.

It might be like when when following a very strict diet, you can have a single bad day, and it's way too easy to feel like you may as well just order 10 pizzas because you fell off the wagon. 

So sometimes I disable the blocker and keep watching Netflix; sometimes I stop and realize I'm actually tired, and I'll probably enjoy the episode more when I'm more awake tomorrow anyway. Sometimes I turn off the wakeup lights and go back to sleep, but even a minute a being blasted with bright light at a specific morning time seems to positively nudge my sleep schedule towards consistency. It's okay that the various systems are not that consistent individually, as long they sometimes work, then it's all good.

Out of curiosity, how'd you set your smartphone to black & white after a certain time? I'm aware of ways to change colors (e.g. via accessibility settings or alternative launchers), but not how to do so at a schedule.

I'm not sure if this is a Google Android Pixel specific feature, but on my phone it's under: Settings -> 'digital wellbeing and parental controls' -> bedtime mode -> customize -> grayscale. And then you set the timing by setting the bedtime timing.

Update: Looks like it's a general Android feature:

The Protagonist

Uh oh, you've been reading and watching too much fiction. Your favorite character can fight in impossible odds and win, but you can't lift 23 pounds? Do you even know know crazy that sounds? It's time to turn on some intense soundtracks and make sure you're ready when your moment comes

This one is occasionally even acknowledged in-story. For instance, the manga Ayashimon features a protagonist who explicitly has Shounen Protagonist syndrome. And The Eminence in Shadow takes things even further - the protagonist is so infatuated with the secret brooding villain archetype that his play-acting as one eventually becomes real. And of course there's the whole notion of Chuunibyou.

I've noticed this one is pretty popular in nerd culture

Did anyone get my weird Maxwell joke at the end of the Aesthete section? I wonder if that one was too much of an insider.

You never need to think much about your health (except for a few episodes such as come to us all, when it forced itself on you, which you dealt with). You eat what you want when you want to, sleep as you feel like it, go to the gym, go on long bicycle rides, hold an interesting job, never had a BMI above 20, don't do colds, never binge-watched anything, and for the first time visited a personal trainer yesterday because of a serious ambition to do a one-day 200 mile bike ride next year in 16 hours instead of the 20 you predict from past form. Looks like your next 60 Sundays are booked up putting the miles in. You do all these things because you want to, with no "oughts" or "shoulds".

I find the supposedly impersonal "you" rather irritating. Someone said of The Last Psychiatrist that he is best read by ignoring every sentence that uses it, which is rather a lot of them, and that was my reaction to the first (and last) post by him that I read. Curtis Yarvin had a recent post where he seemed to be channeling TLP, and I had the same response.

It comes across to me as cadging a cosy complicity in the nihilism (which is what is usually is) that is being peddled. It's overbearing. The writer is claiming to know me, whom he has never heard of, better than I know myself. He is drawing a map by looking only at the inside of his own forehead, and as is well known around here, this does not work.

There is another way. The impersonal "I". Instead of thrusting on others what they must be like, I can say, this is how it is for me, inviting others to see whether it is that way for them. Instead of saying that "you" do this or that, I can say, this is what I do.

ETA: I also find it useful to try doing without the impersonal 3rd person. Recasting the two sentences beginning "The writer is claiming...": If I say "you" this and "you" that, I am claiming to know you, each one of you personally, but of whom I know almost nothing, better than you know yourselves. I would be drawing a map by looking only at the inside of my own forehead, and as is well known around here, this does not work.

Apologies if the writing style came off this way. It somehow felt right for this post, but I wouldn't normally use it. (Here's another post of mine written in a hopefully less irritating manner.)

I definitely did not mean to be psycho-analyzing, however, which I'd hope would be apparent from my many bizarre examples. It was meant more to be reminiscent of choosing a character profile in an RPG or doing a weird but obviously nonsensical online personality test and reading the result, maybe? But that's rationalisation, when the honest answer is "it felt right when I wrote it".

While writing this post I had the vague notion that I'd been unconsciously imitating some of Scott Alexander's fiction, but then I checked a bunch of it, and his stories basically weren't written in second person. So I don't actually know how I came up with it. (EDIT: I've been informed that this one actually is in second person.)

I don't think this post could've worked in third person, because it would've required adding more detail to the characters than I could've come up with and would've furthermore made the stories longer, but I like your suggestion of using first person.

FWIW I too can find that style offputting, but in this case I got something closer to your intended vibe. To me the OP seems playful rather than smug.

Addendum: On further reflection, I think the writing style might come from Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Had your comment not been here, I was going to wager that it was the source of the style. I read it under the assumption that you explicitly intended to imitate those.

Incidentally, I appreciate that you provided the story at the beginning. If the intention was to make me empathize with being irritated at that writing style, it very much succeeded :p.