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Positive and Negative

What I'm going to talk about here is a universal truth of social interaction. It applies to husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, roommates, classmates, coworkers, even total strangers. So, if my examples aren't working for you, please just use your imagination—I'm sure you can find examples within your own experience.

Suppose you're part of a family, everyone has come down to breakfast, and for no particular reason one person is crabby and irritable. Maybe ve didn't get enough sleep, or isn't a morning person, or just got up on the wrong side of the bed; who knows. Anyway, as a result, in response to some innocent remark, the person says something nasty, and then everyone gets into a bad mood and doesn't say anything else. And, even if the person tries to say something nice to smooth things over, it's too late—ve might well receive a nasty reply for vis trouble, and even if not, the day is already poisoned for everyone involved.

Here I'd like to introduce a more general name, and say that the person in that example had negative energy. Then, we can already see the two key characteristics of negative energy. First, it tends to spread from person to person and grow in total quantity. Second, it can come back to its source and create a feedback loop, with huge potential for amplification. (Ironically, although the energy is negative, the feedback is positive, since the energy tends to grow without bound rather than stabilize.)

Of course there's also positive energy, which has the same two characteristics. Suppose you're working in an office, and just for fun, one person brings in doughnuts or bagels or some other toroidal comestible. That little kindness puts everyone in a slightly better mood, and might lead to more kindness later on.

However, positive and negative energy aren't exact opposites. Positive energy seems weaker to me, more fragile. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe positive energy is most easily sent to one person at a time, while negative energy lends itself to broadcasts; or maybe it's just harder to create than to destroy. There might also be some connection to the asymmetry between happiness and sadness that I noted in Happiness (see the story about commuting). It's certainly true that energy affects me more if it comes as a surprise, i.e., if it's not already built into my expectations.

It's already apparent from the doughnut example, but I'd like to emphasize that energy can be transmitted by any kind of action, not just speech. A friendly smile from a stranger can carry positive energy; and then there's the proverbial case of the angry businessman who comes home and kicks the dog, transmitting negative energy. (The kick also arguably reduces the amount of negative energy that the businessman has. It usually works that way, I think, even with positive energy.) Energy can be transmitted by inaction, too—for example, by ignoring someone when ve's talking to you.

Next I'd like to compare and contrast having positive energy with two closely related but different things.

Is having positive energy the same as making other people happy? Definitely not! Having positive energy has that effect, but the cause is important too. If you have positive energy, you'll naturally make other people happy through the spontaneous expression of your own happiness. It's not about being a martyr, making others happy while suffering yourself. It's not even about being considerate, making others happy intentionally and rationally—though of course one can have positive energy and still be considerate. The “pay it forward” and “random acts of senseless kindness” approaches also seem too large and artificial to me.

Is having positive energy the same as being in a good mood? Almost. The way I see it, energy is the same thing as mood or emotion, but talking about energy instead of emotion emphasizes that the emotion isn't completely confined within one person but instead tends to spread and grow. The difference is a lot like the difference between a meme and an idea. (Are emotions ideas? Discuss.) Note that the qualifiers “completely” and “tends to” are important. It's possible to be in a bad mood and hide it, or to be in a good mood and not express it. Still, I believe a good or bad mood will always show through to some extent.

Now I'd like to go a bit further and suggest that if you watch people over time, you'll find that some people tend to have positive energy, others negative; that is, people have characteristic energies. You can count on some people to cheer you up, others to bring you down. However, you have to be careful not to jump to conclusions! Although people have characteristic energies, they also still have moods, so when you meet someone new, you ought to wait and get some good statistics before you decide you know anything about ver. (And, no matter how much care you take not to jump to conclusions about other people, other people will still jump to conclusions about you, which is why it's so important to make a good first impression.)

To go even further, let's consider the idea that inanimate objects might have characteristic energies. And why not? If you say that someone has positive energy, that means ve makes you happy, and that, according to the theory I presented in Happiness, simply means ve contributes good events to your stream of experiences. So, if some inanimate object is also reliably connected with good events, why not say that it too has positive energy? And similarly for negative energy, of course. There are actually a couple of examples of negative energy right at the end of Happiness—the squeaky door and the piece of trash. Or, as an example of positive energy, how about wind chimes? I like the mellow bonging sounds they produce, and they remind me of my grandparents' house, of hot dry summer days with just a little breeze coming off the lake.

Wind chimes are also an example of something else. I like them, but I know there are people who don't; hence the positive or negative energy of wind chimes is a property not of the chimes themselves but rather of the relationship between the chimes and the person listening to them. In other words, energy is relative to the recipient! And, that remains true even when the source is a person rather than an inanimate object. Think of a morning person arriving at work on Monday morning, bursting with positive energy and genuine, spontaneous expressions of happiness. How annoying that is, when all you want is to drink your coffee in peace and quiet!

There's probably more one could say about energy being relative, but I don't want to get into it. It's a real effect, I think, but not an important one, mostly coming into play when people have different backgrounds. It's also really more of a point about communication failure à la Tannen than about energy.

In the end, I also don't want to say that inanimate objects have energy. It was a fun idea to consider, and a good way to get at the point about energy being relative, but really it's just another instance of the mistaken idea that making people happy is the same as having positive energy.

I don't remember when I first heard about positive and negative energy, but I'm pretty sure that when I did, I dismissed the whole idea as touchy-feely nonsense, mostly because it irritated me to hear the word “energy” misused. I'd studied physics, after all, so I knew what energy really was! Nowadays, though, the name doesn't bother me. Most words have more than one meaning—and no matter how many meanings “energy” has, physics.energy will still be conserved.

Finally, speaking of things touchy and feely, let's return to the second key characteristic of energy, that energy can come back to its source. Does that sound familiar? If not, it should—it's just the good old principle “what goes around, comes around”, also known as karma. (That's the current meaning of the word “karma”. The original meaning is different in two ways. First, karma is supposed to be more of a long-term thing—what you do in this life determines what you'll come back as in the next. Second, karma isn't supposed to be a principle at all! According to my dictionary, the word “karma” is basically just the Sanskrit word for deeds. So, the principle is that your karma determines what you'll come back as in the next life.) Anyway, the point is, the short-term form of karma is not entirely a metaphysical abstraction. Given just a few simple facts about how people feel and behave, a limited form of karma follows.


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@ February (2010)