Energy’s Nemesis

Nick Brown talks to us about the use of the word energy and its application as a metaphor

I’m not a big fan of the word “energy” being used in positive psychology.  Probably this is because it’s frequently overused in all kinds of pseudo-scientific ways; just type “healing energy” into Google and marvel at some of the stuff which people believe.  But even when it’s clear that it’s only being used metaphorically, I can’t help thinking that there should be a better term – quite often, good old “positive affect” would do nicely.

However, if we’re going to borrow terms from physics as metaphors, then as well as energy, we should also be prepared to encounter its nemesis, entropy.  Like energy, “real” entropy has a precise meaning, which you can look up on Wikipedia, or, more entertainingly, listen to at

But for our purposes, entropy can be regarded as the tendency of things to stagnate, become “cold”, or go wrong over time, without any apparent reason.  (Try leaving a computer off for three months and see if everything works when you restart it.)

In a “closed system”, entropy will tend to increase constantly.  Consider what happens when you don’t do your personal happiness interventions regularly.  Emotional entropy sets in, eroding the reserves of resilience which you’ve previously built up.  Even when nothing bad has happened, things just gradually become colder, slacker, more disordered – all signs of entropy.

Fortunately, there is a fix for entropy.  You just have to supply energy (that word again!) from outside the system.  That means that you can’t just “think yourself happy” (that would be energy from inside the system, which just generates more entropy, like trying to cool down your kitchen by opening the fridge door).  Instead, if what’s stagnating – suffering from too much entropy – is “you”, the source of entropy reduction is “outside you”.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to define positive psychology as being all about reducing emotional entropy.  Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity and Sonya Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness both emphasise the importance of regular doses of positive affect; but, unlike the “make it up as you go along” self-help authors, they don’t just tell you to “think positive”.  You have to get out there and make changes to your life in the real world, and the energy will follow.  Find an act of kindness to perform, contact an old friend, or truly savour nature on a walk.  Plus, unlike boring old “physics energy”, when used on people, this kind of energy works both ways, and you get to reduce their entropy too.

But remember: like energy, it’s just a metaphor.  Please don’t base your next paper for American Psychologist on your refutation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Author’s Bio:

Nick Brown is a MAPP student at UEL, trying to reconcile the need for better science in positive psychology with a looming realisation that trying to measure anything truly interesting with objective data is close to impossible.  He welcomes all comments, rebuttals, and tips – of either the “help” or “PayPal” kind – at nick.brown@free.fr

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