The Anna Karenina Principle

Edited and curated by @philhagspiel

Disorder increases over time — it is more likely that things go wrong than right.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

— Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina

As one of the most fundamental principles orchestrating our lived reality, the Second Law Of Thermodynamics makes any isolated system tend to degenerate into a more disordered state over time. In other words, things naturally tend towards decay and chaos (from a macro perspective).

The reason is that from all possible configurations of elements in a system, the number of configurations that create a chaotic state is a lot larger than the number of configurations that create an ordered state. At the same time, systems tend to change over time as change is the constant. It follows that when no energy is intentionally directed to create order, they tend to become more chaotic over time automatically.

While this has many implications in science, especially in physics and chemistry, it is a principle that helps us understand many fundamental realities and dynamics of everyday life.

For example, if you have a jigsaw puzzle, there is only one configuration in which you can solve it, regardless of how many pieces there are. But there are millions of wrong ways to arrange all pieces — even if there are only 10 pieces (try this out for yourself here).

Likewise, while there are quite a few ways in which things can go right in our lives (privately and professionally), there are infinitely more ways in which they can go wrong. In more abstract terms, the system of our life has many more configurations in which things go off rails rather than configurations in which it follows one of the scenarios we would regard as a good life.

The main implication of this fundamental feature of reality is that we have to make an effort to put things into place and create structure and order. If we rely on chance, the odds of our lives turning out in our favor are stacked heavily against us.

“It is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited (...) and good to that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way.”

— Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics (Book 2)


A few further resources you might like if you find the above idea interesting: