Net Positive: Having More Positive than Negative Impact

Net Positive


Net positive occurs when an entity has an impact that is more positive than negative overall, generally in a specific domain. Net positive can apply to various entities, such as individuals and organizations, and to various domains, such as the environment and social relationships.

For example, in the context of the environment, net positive can involve companies doing more to improve the environment than to harm it. Similarly, in the context of friendships, net positive can involve people giving their friends more help than they require from them.

Because net positive has substantial potential benefits, so it’s worthwhile to understand this concept. As such, in the following article you will learn more about net positive, see why it can be beneficial, and understand how you can pursue it yourself as effectively as possible.


Examples of net positive

The concept of net positive is primarily discussed in the context of the environmental policies of large organizations, such as companies, cities, or countries. An example of net positive in this context is a company that tries to generate more electricity than it consumes.

However, net positive can also be pursued and achieve in various other domains. For example, the following are examples of ways in which individuals can pursue net positive in their personal life:

  • You can try to contribute to your community more than you take from it. For example, if you’re part of some community, such as a sports team or an online forum, you can help others in that community more often than you ask for help yourself.
  • You can try to improve the environment more than you harm it. For example, each time you go hiking, you can take a small bag with you, and pick up a few small pieces of trash to clean up the trail as you go along, to leave it cleaner than it was before your hike.
  • You can try to finish each day a little further ahead on your goals. For example, if your goal is to improve your health, you can make sure to progress each day, for instance by exercising a bit more than you previously did.

Furthermore, it can also be useful to account for the concept of net positive in other ways. For example, in the case of software development, it can be helpful to identify programmers who are not net positive, in the sense that they hinder projects more than they help them, since removing such programmers can sometimes be more beneficial than adding good programmers.

Finally, similar concepts as the net positive have been formulated in various forms throughout history. A notable example of this is attributed to Robert Baden-Powell, who inspired the world’s Scout Movement, and who said that you should “leave this world a little better than you found it”.


The potential benefits of net positive

There are several reasons why pursuing and achieving net positive can be beneficial:

  • It can be viewed as the right thing to do from a moral and ethical perspective. For example, net positive ties in to moral principles such as Kant’s categorical imperative, which denotes that you should act the way you want everyone else to act too, and the golden rule, which denotes that you should treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.
  • It can make you feel good about yourself and your action. For example, being net positive can make you feel that you did the right thing, which can improve your emotional wellbeing.
  • It can motivate you to take action. For example, pursuing net positive can give you a clear goal to pursue, which can motivate you to take important action that you wouldn’t otherwise.
  • It can directly improve the situation that you’re net positive in. For example, if your goal is to make your favorite hiking trail cleaner, picking up litter as you hike in pursuit of net positive is a direct way to achieve that.
  • It can encourage others to act in a similar way. For example, if people see you acting in a way that is better for the environment, this could prompt them to act the same way.
  • It can improve people’s impression of you. For example, if people know that you strive to be a helpful figure in your community, this could improve your reputation, and make people want to connect with you.

For some of these benefitsbut not all of themthe reason why you’re pursuing net positive can also matter. For example, if it’s clear that you’re pursuing net positive out of altruism, which is selfless concern for others, this could improve people’s impression of you more than if you were pursuing net positive for selfish reasons. However, this might not make a direct difference to your motivation to take action, or to your ability to achieve positive outcomes.

Finally, note that many of these benefits can become more apparent when you contrast net positive with the alternative types of impact that one can have, and namely net negative and net neutral. For example, when it comes to the impression that you make on others, being net negative is generally more likely to lead people to form a bad impression of you than being net positive. Similarly, when it comes to achieving certain outcomes, being net netural is likely to lead to stagnation and lack of progress, whereas being net positive will lead to improvement.


How to be net positive

To pursue net positive, you should try to have more positive impact (e.g., giving to others) than negative impact (e.g., taking from others), either in general or in a specific domain (e.g., when it comes to personal relationships). To achieve this, you can do the following:

  • Increase the amount and impact of the positive things that you do. For example, you can try to help your friends more frequently or in a more substantial way.
  • Decrease the amount and impact of the negative things that you do. For example, you can try to ask your friends for help less frequently or to ask for help that requires less from them.

When doing this, it can help to keep the benefits of net positive in mind, particularly if you need motivation to take action.

In addition, when pursuing net positive, there are a few important things that you should keep in mind:

  • You should ask yourself how much net positive you want to achieve, and why. For example, if you feel that you’re able to contribute more than most people in some domain, you might choose to pursue a greater net positive than if you’re struggling in that domain. For example, if you want to provide more questions than answers in some forum, then depending on your abilities you can choose between providing two or five answers for every question that you ask.
  • Net positive shouldn’t be an excuse for negative behavior. Specifically, you shouldn’t generally use the fact that you do good in some domains in order to justify causing harm in other domains, and you shouldn’t generally use the fact that you have an overall positive impact in order to justify highly problematic actions. For example, picking up trash at the beach doesn’t mean that you should litter at the park, or that you should pour pollutants into the ocean.
  • Net positive is just one guiding principle out of many, and should be implemented with common sense. For example, even if your pursuit of net positive means that you want to help others, that doesn’t mean that you have to let malicious people take advantage of your generosity if you believe that would cause you harm.

Finally, note that when trying to promote net positive in yourself or in other, it might help to conceptualize it in a way that fits your goals and circumstances. Such conceptualization can take various forms, such as the idea of giving more than you take, helping more than you harm, or doing your part to make the situation better.


Net positive in personal development

It can sometimes be beneficial to pursue net positive with regard to your personal development. Essentially, this means that you should constantly try to improve yourself, and finish each day/week/month/year in a slightly better way than you were before, in ways that matter to you.

For example, if you feel that your bedroom is messy, you could challenge yourself to finish each day with it a bit cleaner and more organized than it was before, until you can get it all cleaned up. Similarly, if you want to get in better shape, you can decide that each day you will do at least one set of exercise, so you will slowly become more fit over time.


Encouraging net positive in others

In addition to implementing the concept of net positive yourself, you can also encourage its use by other entities, such as individuals or groups.

How you should go about this depends on factors such as who you’re trying to influence and what you’re trying to get them to do. For example, if you’re trying to get some person to act a certain way, it might be best to simply lead through personal example. Conversely, if you’re trying to get a company to implement net positive as a policy, you will likely have to use a different approach.

When encouraging the pursuit of net positive, it can be helpful to identify the potential benefits of achieving it, and to emphasize the ones that will most appealing to the entity in question. For example, if you want to convince a corporation to adopt an environmental net-positive policy, it might be more effective to show them that this can be profitable in terms of public relations, than to try and convince them to do it based on moral principles.


If you can’t achieve net positive

There might be times or domains where it’s not reasonable for you to pursue or achieve net positive. For example, it might be that you’re struggling financially due to your circumstance, so you require more financial help than you can give.

When this happens due to something that you can’t reasonably change, you should accept it, and try to do the best you can. As one eminent stoic philosopher said:

“Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”

— From “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius (Book VII, Passage 7)

You should also keep this in mind when it comes to how you view others. Specifically, you should accept the fact that different people under different circumstances have different abilities with regard to pursuing net positive, and so you shouldn’t necessarily have a bad view of those who don’t pursue or achieve a net positive, especially if it’s clear that they’re trying their best to have some positive impact.

Finally, there are two more things worth keeping in mind in situations where you can’t pursue or achieve net positive:

  • Just because you can’t achieve a net positive, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to have some positive impact. For example, even if you’re a beginner at a certain hobby, and it’s clear that you need more help from others than you can currently give back, you can still try to make a positive impact on the community by being friendly to people.
  • If you can’t reach net positive in one domain, you can make up for it in others. For example, if you can’t achieve net positive when it comes to helping out in one community where you’re considered a beginner, you might be able to make up for it in another community where you’re considered an expert. On a similar note, even if you can’t pursue net positive in the present, you might be able to make up for it in the future, when things change sufficiently.


Accounting for the net impact of things

It can be useful to account for the net impact of things, even when it doesn’t have to do with pursuing net positive yourself. For example, if you realize that a certain person has a net negative impact on your life, you can do things such as talk to them about the issue, limit your interactions with them, or cut them out of your life entirely.


Terminology and associated concepts

Net positive is sometimes also referred to as net gain or net positive impact. It is sometimes contrasted with net negative (also referred to net loss or net negative impact), and with net neutral (also referred to as no net loss, net zero, or impact neutral).

In addition, similar concepts are sometimes also used in certain domains, such as net-zero energy, which refers to entities, such as companies or buildings, which generate as much energy as they consume.

Finally, note that, particularly in the environmental context, an entity’s negative impact (e.g., a company’s energy consumption) is sometimes referred to as its footprint, while its positive impact (e.g., a company’s energy production) is sometimes referred to as its handprint.


Summary and conclusions

  • Net positive occurs when an entity has an impact that is more positive than negative overall, generally in a specific domain.
  • Net positive can apply to various entities, such as individuals and organizations, and to various domains, such as the environment and social relationships.
  • Pursuing and achieving net positive has various potential benefits, including acting in alignment with moral principles, feeling good about yourself, being motivated to take action, improving the situation that you’re trying to be net positive in, encouraging others to act in a similar way, and improving people’s impression of you.
  • Pursuing net positive generally entails increasing the amount and impact of the positive things that you do, or decreasing the amount and impact of the negative things that you do, though it can also be beneficial to account for the net impact of things even in cases where you’re not trying to pursue net positive directly.
  • When deciding whether and how to pursue net positive, you should use common sense, avoid using this principle as an excuse for negative behavior, and remember that even if you can’t achieve net positive, you can still try to have some positive impact.