Is Your World Filled With People Who Are “Radiators” or “Drains”?

Over the holiday weekend, I managed to do a lot of reading–which made me very happy.

Among other things, I read Past Imperfect, a novel by Julian Fellowes (a man of many accomplishments, such as winning an Academy Award for best original screenplay for the brilliant movie Gosford Park).

The novel’s narrator made an observation that has stuck with me.

“Years later, a friend would describe her world as being peopled entirely by radiator and drains. If so, then Damian was King Radiator. He warmed the company he was in.”

More and more, it seems to me that energy is an enormously helpful clue as to whether a person,  activity,  or place is a happiness-booster, or not. I find it’s useful to ask: “Does this person make me feel energized?” or “Does this activity, though intimidating and frustrating, make me feel more energetic in the long run?”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, in my experience, some people who are quite low-energy nevertheless act as radiators–because it’s not their personal verve that matters, but their level of engagement and quality of their ideas. And some people who are very high-energy and gung-ho end up being drains, because they somehow make things harder instead of easier, or put a damper on other people’s observations and ideas. (And by “other people’s observations and ideas,” I mean my observations and ideas. I admit!)

I love dividing the world into two categories. Leopards and alchemists. Abstainers and moderators. Maximizers and satisficers.

How about you? Do you think the distinction between “radiators” and “drains” is a useful way to think about things?

  • Susiespin

    Another category that we often talked about in therapy – definers and adapters. Relevant in the big picture of life as well as the little picture of marriage.

    • gs

      Sounds interesting! Can you say more about these two categories?

  • Don’t forget that Mr. Fellowes also gave us cult hit – “Downton Abbey”! Thanks again for the reminder of the source for one of my favorite quotes about people.

    • gretchenrubin

      Did HE do Downton Abbey? I didn’t know that! Zoikes.

      • Catherine

        As well as the glorious ‘Snobs’, an excellent novel about class and love in England…

  • Larry Ely

    I got a tremendous insight from reading this, Gretchen. I have been working with the myth of Pluto and Persephone, and now realize that it is best seen as Pluto (drainer) in opposition to Persephone (radiator). – Larry Ely

  • Denise

    You are definitely on target with this one, Gretchen. I have to work in close quarters with a group of people and those who talk incessantly and are perky-cheery always have the least value to their chatter. I have to tune out most of it in order to survive for 8-12 hours of it. There are, of course, “drains” who can be equally vocal — with whining, complaining, gossiping. I find that the definitions of both drainer and radiator hold true but don’t necessarily have to do with outward projection of energy. They have more to do with their base effect on another person. Is it possible that one person’s drain is another person’s radiator?

    • Charlotte

      Interesting observation…I have someone in my life who is excessively perky and cheerful and whose constant chatter drains me. I think your own personality plays a big part in how you perceive people’s energy. I prefer low key people who have a lot to talk about/many interests and who give and take in conversation. Super high energy or aggressively cheery people for one reason or another stress me! I try to avoid them. It is my issue though and I mean that in the sense that these people are probably great for other people.

  • Anne

    I had a boss for thirty years who was a real radiator. I’ve been thinking about him quite a bit lately–and actually contacted him to tell him what I was thinking. The extraordinary thing about him was that he listened to ideas purely as ideas. He didn’t care who they came from–man or woman, etc., or whether he even liked the person. Ideas existed separately from people. It made for a great work environment. It’s only since I retired that I realized how rare and helpful this was.

  • This rings very true, there are some people who are always leaving the world a bit better and others who are truly draining. I sure hope I am in the radiator category.

  • Louise Thompson

    Absolutely Gretchen. There are people who drain us and people who energise us and spending more time with the latter makes for happier, more balanced life for sure! I think the thing thats important to recognise is that it’s not necessarity a reflection on the other persons character, in that they are not “a draining person” per se, it’s just the fit between us, our unique dynamic, that might be draining. One persons drain is another persons radiator!

  • mairsydoats

    Julian Fellowes wrote a novel?!? Oh, my life just got a little better! One of the BEST commentary tracks around (and I can be a bit obsessive about them) is his commentary on Gosford Park. Worth the price of the dvd…
    And I think the radiator/drain distinction is a good one. I have a sneaky suspicion I can be more drainy than radiating more often than I’d like. Something to ponder and think about as I wander the world.

    • gretchenrubin

      He also wrote a very good novel called “Snobs.”

      Hmmmm… I may have to spring for the DVD to get that commentary.

  • peninith

    Been thinking about this post all afternoon. I am pretty convinced that this is generally quite situational (one person’s drain is another’s radiator) and yet there are some few genuinely charismatic and energy giving people, as well as some people who are like giant blocks of ice, draining all the warmth and ease out of every gathering they enter. I like the 12-step-program phrase ‘stick with the winners’ . . . I try to spend my time with people I regard as ‘radiators’ and to learn from them how to give warmth and energy to the world around me so that I can in my modest way be a radiator too.
    Extraversion is not necessarily the key (some flambouyant people can be awfully draining). A good listener can be radiantly warm. I’m going to spend some time thinking about what qualities I find radiant . . . attentiveness, simplicity, generosity (as opposed to neediness), kindly laughter and cheerfulness, ability to take joy in whatever is there, a sense of possibility, empathy, encouragement, delight in work or an activity, flexibility, genuine patience, tolerance, concern for others. With radiators it really ISN’T all about them, their rules, their needs, their obsessions and their tetchy boundaries. Radiators are the open field or maybe even the challenging hiking trail. But they are never the minefield or the quicksand or the swamp or the hidden iceberg. Interesting to speculate.

    • gs

      Thank you–this is a lovely riff on Gretchen’s post.

  • Jackie

    I saw a sign today that asked, are you a faucet or a drain?

    • gretchenrubin

      I like that even better than radiator! More symmetrical.

      • gs

        How about fountains vs drains? That would be symmetrical and appropriate, since fountains are refreshing, exuberant, joyous, and full of vitality–unlike drains.

  • Anne

    Thanks for the recommendation of “Past Imperfect,” Gretchen! I love to hear about good books. I read the reviews and ordered a copy.

  • English Girl

    I think probably everyone can be both drain and radiator, depending on how they feel.

    Do you like ‘Downton Abbey ‘Gretchen? I find that show a bit of a drain and radiator! with lovely house and grounds settings! I like it lots but some episodes are so sad I wonder if I like it as much as I think. I have an interesting book about it waiting to be read.

  • Lynvz

    It is interesting that you say some people can be radiators or drains because I think people can be both. I know people who in some situations are radiators one minute by adding to a situation, but then, just as quickly can turn around and be a drain by saying something that is hurtful or not true.

  • shaeon

    It strikes me that whether you are an extrovert or an introvert may affect how you perceive people in this situation. I am a bit of an introvert – I’m not painfully shy and I’m perfectly capable of going out in public to socialize and meet people, but I’ve observed that my extrovert friends find radiation in the exact same people I find draining.

  • Monica

    Yes! Most definiately.

  • Love the dichotomy Gretchen’s article creates! As a few people have said in their responses – it’s not so
    much about the person, rather how they FIT with us.

    Do I feel warm and fuzzy when X person
    is around? Yep – that’s the key to know I want that person in my life. Do I avoid interactions with X person
    because he/she leaves me drained? Yep – that’s
    a surefire sign that I need to remove him/her from my life.

    It’s a simple, yet powerful way to
    remember to invest in relationships that bring warmth and happiness.

  • Nina

    A timely message for me. I have just decided to take a leave of absence from my job, which I found extremely draining. I hope to find a new pursuit that “radiates” energy for me, and in which I can radiate for others. And hopefully get paid enough to keep body and soul together, but that is secondary. I’ve worked for money long enough.

  • spase

    this is a great post Gretchen! your distinction between radiator people and high-energy/extroverted people is spot on. i’d been struggling with that recently as i found myself drained by many extremely energetic/cheery people and thought that I was somehow at fault.. glad to realize that it’s not (necessarily and always) me!
    one question – does anyone have any tips on how to deal with draining people besides walking away from them? i try to limit my interaction with them too, but i can’t help wondering if there’s a more constructive approach..

    • elpynchon

      spase, thanks for your comment — I wonder too, when I read posts about avoiding toxic people or “drains”, whether just walking away is an avoidance/escapist way of dealing with the problem. I guess that, like everything else, it will depend on each situation/circumstance, i.e. at some point you might have to walk away — but when is that point reached? It will probably be different with each drain/toxic person…

  • Interesting way of looking at it. I have been “challenged” by my 9-year-old for the past few weeks, and he has definitely been a drainer. His 4-year-old sister, on the other hand, from her first breath has been a radiator. Always happy with everything and nothing, she is truly a pleasure to be around. If I could mass market her personality, I would, because we would all be better off. I think the “drainers” of our lives are sometimes like toxicity. I go through phases where I disentangle myself from toxic relationships (friends, romances, what have you), because I think less toxicity and more positivity is always a good thing.

  • I am thinking that if there are very distinctive and opposing groups of people in your daily life that maybe you are working at being in the wrong lifestyle. For years and years . . . and years I tried to be in a married situation, living the traditional life and fit into the wives groups who fussed over household routines, juggling kids, home, work, etc. Then thru circumstances completely beyond my control I was thrust out into a different life. I was on my own, living alone. At first I was in a bad mental state and found people would come into my life and leave, much like living in a revolving door, As I came to make decisions for myself, do things I chose for myself (this has been a very long process) it became easier to live alone, have friends, never found anyone who was appealing as a partner, or even a good one night stand for that matter, I have stopped fighting my normal and learned to accept it – mostly – and now that I am living life the way I am the best at, I attract the sort of people that are good for me and I am good for them. it seems that there is much discussion on the virtues and advantages of living single and I hear it and it feels like single is where I am meant to be. There are tough times, but there were a lot of tough times as a couple also. There is lonliness in both situations. All the reasons I thot I needed a husband in my life seem to have fallen away over the years. I was raised to believe that I would grow up and marry, that I needed a man to take care of me, I needed no education. Resentfully, I tried to buy into that message and spent so many years TRYING. When I am trying that hard,I’m seting myself up for failure; doing the wrong thing. I guess the bottom line for me is that I have to be living the way I can be myself and I attract radiators and I am the same back to them.

  • pjhype13

    Nice. As a technical person, I can relate to your energy analogy. I agree with most of the observations that “high energy” people (radiators) can be “downers” (remove energy), and “low energy people (drains) can be “uppers” (provide energy). But why? It would appear that the whole premise of radiators and drains is kaputt! However, there is still something to this, but we need to get a bit technical, so stay with me …

    If you have something that is hot and another thing that is cold, the natural tendency is for the hot thing to get cooler and the cold thing to get warmer. Usually, the air in the room provides the means by which the heat is conducted from hot to cold. If no air is present in the room, there is no conduction, and the hot thing remains hot and the cold thing remains cold (for the most part)!

    So the key to transferring this “energy” (and in social interactions, it is happiness, love, trust, compassion, etc.) is maintaining the paths of conduction!!! Voila! And what are those paths? It is the give and take of ideas, the ability to gain buy-in and participation, listening and communication skills (which gets into tone of voice, facial expression, body language, etc, etc, etc.)

    Gretchen, thanks for being the radiator and providing the air in the room to conduct energy! Too bad real life isn’t as straight-forward as technical stuff, eh?


    Hello Gretchen, I love this concept of radiators and drains. So true!!!! Btw, I greatly enjoyed both your Happiness books. I am a happiness junkie myself! I am looking forward to reading your new book on Habits. Good luck!


    And I am greatly enjoying going back and reading your old entries on your blog. 🙂

  • Magic

    Okay, so I’m years late here! But new to your divine blog.

    I’m surprised there’s not more commentary, as I think this is a pivotal part of life. Like you Gretchen, I’m seeing things more and more in terms of energy. I’m noticing that as I age or experience illness, injury or loss, I have to really conserve and manage my energy. This includes being selective about those to whom I expose myself, as well as choosing what activities I do.

    It has also made me more aware of tracking my energy impact on others; am I draining them or energising them? Fortunately the feedback is I energise! But I think that’s because I’m more likely to isolate myself when I think I might be draining.