Is the glass half empty or half full?

For years I dismissed this question (which tends to focus on whether you’re pessimistic or optimistic, respectively) with “I’m a realist, it is what it is,” but it turns out I’m a glass-half-empty kind of person. 

I realized that when I was worrying in ways like this:

  • “My shares in this company are worth $x. That sucks compared to their value of $2x not so long ago” without remembering that I bought them for 0.5x.
  • “Awww damn, it’s raining so I’m going to hunch over” while forgetting that hunching doesn’t keep me dry, I’ll be home (to dry clothes) in 10 minutes, and rain is part of Amsterdam’s glory.
  • “If I give my girlfriend this piece, then she’ll have more than me, and I’m hungry” without remembering that there are more pieces to eat, that a piece that’s half a bite larger isn’t going to fill me up, and — no duh — it’s my girlfriend who I’m sharing with. (wtf?)

How does this happen?

Academics have thought about these ideas, which go deeper than optimistic and pessimistic. We know that “framing” a question or idea affects the way people perceive it. We’re happier getting an “gift” with  our purchase than having it included in the price, for example. A related concept  — anchoring — depends on a reference point. People are often happier getting a 50% discount on a $10 book than paying the “full price” of $5 for the same book. 

How can these perspectives co-exist?

I think there are pros and cons to each perspective, so one never displaces the other. A half-empty perspective might drive you to save food and thus avoid starving. A half-full perspective might lead you to take a chance and thus find a new food source.

Which one is better?

Neither. For the half-empty perspective, you might worry without need on many occasions (con) but predict — and thus avoid — “surprises” (pro). Half-empty probably means short-term stress but long-term success. 

From the half-full perspective, you’re going to be surprised by occasional disasters (con) but life a care-free life (pro). My father’s optimism has helped him enjoy 85 years, but he’s a bit behind on his retirement planning. 

What’s to be done?

In general, I’d consider the half-full perspective if you’re a half-empty kind of person (and vice-versa). Such contrarian thinking (which requires type 2 effort) will increase short-term happiness for the half-empty personality and long-term successful for the half-full type.

Personally, I try to remember how many things are going well in my life, trust statistics (“this plane in unlikely to crash”), or put the topic aside. Sometimes it will come back for attention and sometimes not, but there’s no sense in worrying until and unless I must.

What do you think about this question of perspective? Are you a half-full or half-empty kind of person? Do you have a good technique to balance your over- or under-optimism?

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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