Is the glass half empty or half full?

While I was putting together my list of 5 sayings that don’t make sense a few days ago, my mind kept coming back to “is the glass half empty or half full?”. Not because it doesn’t make sense, but because I just detest the expression with a passion. I think it was inflicted on me a few too many times as a child; I’ve never liked being psychoanalysed to begin with and now I just cringe whenever I hear it. Seriously, I don’t think there’s an expression I hate more; “because I said so” and “let’s face it” would come close, but even they don’t set my teeth on edge the same way.

A few years ago I used to hear it so often that I tried to make a game out of it; I thought if I could come up with a different answer every time, I might somehow preserve my sanity. I came up with some pretty good ones and sometimes I’d just change my answers to mess with people. It’s half full. It’s half empty. Well, it’s half empty, but really it’s full because the other half is full of air. Right now it’s half full, but there’s a crack in the glass so soon it’ll only be a third full. I decline to comment because it will reveal more about my psyche than the police are willing for me to reveal. And my personal favourite: There is no glass. You should have seen the way they’d stare at me, then turn to look at the glass when I said that! It was priceless. 🙂

But of course the reason the expression exists and has become so popular is because it asks such a simple question, but has no simple answer. We’re fascinated by the way optimistic and pessimistic influences appear in our lives; that’s why there are so many psychology books, so many self-help books – our thinking determines how we act in our day to day lives, and it’s daunting to think out mindset might have a negative outlook.

Why should it worry us, though? What’s so bad about seeing the glass as half-empty? I’ve never quite understood why. Most of us know it’s not good to be pessimistic; being in a negative state of mind makes it more difficult to function and brings you and everyone around you down, as well as having an impact on depression and other illnesses. But I don’t buy into this idea that just because I look at an equation one way, that means I’m more likely to subscribe to a certain kind of mindset. It’s just too simple; too black and white. I know it’s not that simple because whenever I try to answer the question seriously, my answer varies, and not for the reasons people think.

Does anyone else find that as well? Maybe not, but my first reaction when someone asks me “if the glass is half empty or half full?” is that it depends on whether the person is pouring or drinking. Does that make me pessimistic? I think it makes me realistic; I can’t answer the question without knowing. If you are drinking from the glass, it’s half empty; if you’re pouring water, it’s half full. Prove me wrong! 😉 But if I put that aside, I’ll often answer based on how I’m feeling that day; if I’ve had a good day, I’m more likely to say half full; a bad day, half empty. For me it’s about mood and not mindset; because my mood changes every day, how can one answer be an accurate reflection of my thinking overall?

It can’t. And that’s why I hate the expression, because people swear by it as fact; I’ve had many arguments with people who just don’t seem to accept that my answers are outside their definitions. Well, maybe they’re right from a certain point of view, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to my opinion.

My definition of pessimism (or optimism) isn’t based on a thought but on a lifestyle; it’s not how you answer a question, but how you live every day. I’m more in the camp of Arthur Schopenhauer’s definition of pessimism than this current idea of negative thinking. To me pessimism is the belief (constant belief) that the world around us is the worst possible; that things will only become worse; that evil will triumph over good. Optimism is the belief that we exist for betterment and goodness; that we have value and people and events are intrinsically good; that the world has a positive influence. For me the only way to judge either is through someone’s feelings and personality rather than their mindset.

Personality is an interesting thing, isn’t it? I posted a quiz called What Kind of Soul Are You? the other day and thanks to everybody who took the time to take it 🙂 , you can see some quite distinct differences. It was just a fun quiz but it was surprisingly accurate with my results; I’m fairly trusting and impulsive, and I like to think I’m creative and nonconformist. What really interested me was the way different types of people were more compatible than others; that’s true in real life. How often does someone rub you the wrong way, or you’re unable to form a connection for no reason? And yet with others, you’re on the same wavelength right away.

I think it’s because we recognise similar traits in each other; we all have our likes and dislikes, and over time that becomes part of our psyche and difficult (though not impossible!) to look past. So it’s not so strange to think that we’d form connections with people who best complement us. Often more positive people will be drawn together, and likewise negative people. Someone who thinks on a more intellectual level will crave that in return, while a docile personality might gravitate toward the opposite, to someone with strength to dominate the relationship. Our personality is unique to us, a reflection of our humour and everything that makes us an individual; whereas our thoughts can change day to day, our personality is much harder to change. It reveals much more than we vocalise; our intensity, our hopes. That’s why it’s a better judge of what kind of person we are.

So what kind of person do I think I am? The truth is, I don’t think of myself as either an optimist or a pessimist. I don’t like categorising myself as anything because then I’m putting myself in a box, and once I’m in there it’s hard to get back out. Deep down I’m a positive person; I don’t chastise myself often and usually my thoughts and dreams are hopeful. But I don’t like closing myself off to my negative thoughts either because I learn more from them than from my positive ones. If I can ask myself, “why am I thinking that?”, then I can actually turn it around to my advantage; I’m not afraid to face my insecurities, and that’s why I have few fears.

If I had to say something, I guess I’d call myself a realist. Maybe that’s a cop out, but that’s just me being honest. I wonder how you see the glass? Or maybe there isn’t any glass at all? 😉

20 thoughts on “Is the glass half empty or half full?

  1. It is a stupid expression/question. I’ve always answered, “It’s both.” Yin-yang – that sort of the thing. I love the answer– there is no glass! I’m going to use that the next time someone asks me that question. Nice blog.

    CJ: Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so! Yes, “it’s both” is a good answer, although people usually just roll their eyes when I say it. But you can’t do much for how people react.

    Thanks for the compliment as well; the blog’s still a work in progress, but I like it. 🙂

  2. hmm, never thought about the implications of that saying before this. i definitely see your point; in fact i’m subscribing to that thought! i’m going to steal you ‘there’s no glass’ line next time this question pops up. 😉 i’m pessimistic about myself, but optimistic for others.

    CJ: It’s something we don’t think about much, isn’t it? We just assume that an expression ends with the words, but some of them go much farther than that. Here, just one response is enough for someone to brand you as one thing or the other, as something you might not be. That just annoys the heck out of me. 😉

    Glad you liked “there’s no glass”; it’s great because they can’t really disagree! Let me know how people react if you use it; it’s so funny sometimes. 🙂 So what’s that make you, an opti-pessimist? Cool. 😆

  3. No, no, “Because I said so” is worse! Seriously, different things push our buttons. You’ve done it again, ceej. You really are a trouble maker sometimes. 😉 As you required I remember Schopenhauer (thanks a heap!) I tried to walk away, but, no…

    Presumption #1 is that “full” is “good” and “empty” is “bad”. You address this. And I agree the premise is unfounded and illogical. Many practising meditators work for years to create a state of mental emptiness, so empty is good, right? A glass half empty would be looked on as well on the way to a worthy goal.

    A person waiting for an overbooked flight told it’s “full” would not see that as a positive attribute. (Although “half full” in this case would be fine–analogy is a tough business).

    No black, no white, no good, no bad…this has been coming up in my thoughts a lot, too.

    Presumption #2 is that “optimism” is “good”, and “pessimism” is “bad”. You must have seen studies that claim “optimists live longer” (is that good)? or “pessimists have more ill health!”.

    Just this evening I was watching a TV special about Sting and his creation of the album Songs from the Labyrinth. It features Sting playing the Lute, and singing the works of Elizabethan-era composer John Dowland. Having sung that composer myself, and having always liked Sting, I was fascinated by these two elements coming together. I bring it up here because I’ve thought Dowland’s music was transcendent and uplifting, whilst some others find it depressing. Sting himself, and the musicologists he had on the program with him, finds it melancholy. But he explains melancholy is not depressed! Nor is it pessimistic! It’s just exploring the range of emotions we all have. It looks at life as a bit dim, but there is always light, somewhere, as well. Melancholy is an emotional undulation, perhaps.

    So, cj, I applaud your stance as a realist. It suits you. It’s not a word I’d ever use to describe myself–my head is firmly planted in the clouds.

    Here’s another saying: “An optimist sees this as the best of all possible worlds. A pessimist is afraid that’s true.”

    CJ: Oh I’m a trouble maker of the worst order, Muse! Wherever I can stir up anarchy, I’m happy. 😀 What I found interesting about your comment (and all your comments, actually) is that you took the presumptions and turned them on their head. I’d never have thought of a full aeroplane as an example of our presumptions, but you’re so right. From my point of view, if I’m trying to book a flight, it’s being full is not a positive thing (although maybe it is for the shareholders). And yet the premise of this question would have me believe that “fullness” is a good thing, when once again it’s something that depends on the situation.

    I’d have to say that on the whole I do believe it’s better to live a positive life; I think living longer is better as long as you can sustain a healthy standard of living, and in my opinion being hopeful and having dreams are some of the most beautiful things in life… if you’re truly pessimistic, can you ever really experience them, or expect to be loved? I think that would be a sad way to live. But having said that, I value the negative parts of life as well because they give me strength. Great beauty comes from the depths of despair. Look at Vincent van Gogh, a troubled man who created some of the most incredible art we’ve seen; if he wasn’t troubled, I doubt he would have been half the artist he was. And Neil Diamond’s battle with depression produced some of the greatest songwriting of a generation. To say there is no beauty in what comes from some of the negative parts of our lives is simply not true.

    That’s what you’re saying about Sting and John Dowland, and I think in the end – to use another expression 😉 -, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; what’s to say that what one person finds melancholy another won’t find beautiful? Our ideas and tastes are very different, and that’s why the “glass is half full/empty” comparison just doesn’t hold up. I agree, btw. I find Dowland’s music very evocative. 🙂

    Thanks for your comment, Muse; you’ve made me think about things again, as always! I may be a realist, but I’m a hopeful one; I might not have my head in the clouds, but I love to stare at them and dream just the same… 😉

  4. ”Great beauty comes from the depths of despair.”

    I hope ur are right on that one.. Even if you are right when you are in despair it is hard to see beauty…

    ”Look at Vincent van Gogh, a troubled man who created some of the most incredible art we’ve seen; if he wasn’t troubled, I doubt he would have been half the artist he was.”

    I don’t think Van Gogh was one of the greatest because he was troubled…He was just a very talented artist who wasn’t well understood…He surely suffered from a mental illness which had negative impact on his life but in spite of this he was just passionate about painting….

    In regards to the half empty-full glass…The problem with me is I always want to see a full glass..There is no half, it is full or empty…I am an extremist, there is no in between…

    CJ: Hey CV, that’s an interesting point you bring up. When someone is in the depths of despair, or even just sees life in an endlessly negative way, it’s very hard to see beauty in anything. What we have loses value… but that doesn’t mean that what we can create in that despair isn’t beautiful either. We just can’t see it ourselves.

    I guess that’s what I mean about van Gogh. He was a very ill man with a talent for art that the world will never forget; without that talent, he could never have painted. But at the same time, you can see his circumstances in many of his works. The Starry Night was painted while he had committed himself to a mental hospital; without that experience, he might never have painted it. Whenever I look at that painting, it speaks to me about despair, but also hope; it’s haunting and beautiful at the same time.

    Perhaps beauty and despair are really two sides of the same coin? Perhaps only by looking at the world in a different way, are we able to create something truly unique… hm, not sure how I’d feel if that were true… I’ll need to give it some thought. 😉

    And actually, I think full or empty is a very good way to look at it. You’re committing to one thing, not looking for hidden meanings… IMO, that’s a very good attitude to have. 🙂

  5. I’ve always hated the saying/question too. Probably because people are trying to draw an answer of “half-empty” out of me because I’ve been thinking negatively. You’re right about boxing people. I find that people try to classify me as pessimist rather than trying to see why I view something negatively. I do tend to look at things negatively, but I refuse to be confined to that. There are definitely smiles and laughs as well. It’s not all bad!

    My husband usually says “The glass is just twice as big as it needs to be.”

    CJ: It’s so annoying when people just won’t listen to your answer, isn’t it? It’s like they think you’re purposefully being difficult, but what they’re really saying is, “you’re not answering the way I want you to, so therefore you must be this”. I suppose by that logic if I see a line of people jumping off a bridge, I’m going to go right over and jump too!

    And that’s exactly why I hate people being classified as one thing or another; we’re never that. Our thoughts and emotions change with the ebb and flow of life; to deny that part of us to me seems unhealthy, and I think finding something to smile and laugh about is a very healthy attitude. If people can’t accept that, well, that’s their problem. 😉

    That’s another great comeback; I’ll have to try it! Thanks for stopping by, kristarella. It’s always great to hear from another Aussie blogger. 🙂

  6. my mommy and daddy always say it when i knock down my brothey brothers peanut butter sculpture of donald trump. it makes no friction sense 2 me. wen i hear it, it makes me so friction hallabaloed. why would u say that wen it makes no sense…. u will sound really really wierd….. thanks 4 listening… ur not mean peoples…. bye yall

    CJ: Well, parents are like that. Sometimes we don’t understand what they mean until later, but for the most part they have our best interests at heart. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  7. A boyfriend of mine at 21 yrs of age told me that I looked at the glass half empty and I have always believed that about myself but now i dont think so, its just i expect more. What glass ?? !!!

  8. What glass is a good way to look at it, isn’t it? I believe we can be whatever we set our minds to and to say I’m one thing based on a thought or impulse doesn’t make sense! I’m much more than that and I’m sure you are too. What glass indeed?

  9. Today on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/comics/20090211.gif

    Seriously, I think the question depends on the nature of the glass, or in wider sense, the container. If it is something you buy and never refill, you can expect it to only get emptier and emptier. In this sense, getting empty is the natural progress, so could also be considered ‘optimistic’ that ‘progress has now been made to the point we are half way done’. Of course, if it is something precious, say, expensive to obtain, you’ve half way lost what you got. Or, if it is something really precious, you are probably happy that if it was really really all the way full, you’d be in danger of spilling some, so having some safety margin is an excellent idea.

  10. There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!
    Terry Pratchett, The Truth

  11. There’s another way of looking at it,instead of looking at what you haven’t got,look at what you have got.
    I always think of this saying whenever I want more than I already have.
    It’s good to be grateful.

  12. I stumbled across this (sounds like someone being caught looking at dirty pictures) when trying to find the originator of the phrase. I like your humour and could have sworn you were irish (im Scottish and live in England). I see you have a lot of material written. Well, is the new novel half started by now? Or half completed?
    Colin

  13. You know what phrase I always hated? When I would ask my parents (or any adult) for something and they would say, “Maybe some other time.” Yeah, right. That’s just a grownup way of saying, “Fat chance, now stop bugging me.”

    Dude, right on with the “I can’t answer without knowing”! I also came to that conclusion myself, but I labeled it mathematician instead of realist, saying “There’s insuffuicient information to answer the question.” Incidentally I saw a quote on Facebook today that said, “Dear pessimist, optimist, and realist, while you guys were busy arguing about the glass of water, I drank it! Sincerely, the opportunist.” I guess that glass was half empty, then.

    The statistician, of course, will say, “In order to set up this test, the most likely scenario is that you took a glass out of your cupboard, filled it halfway at the sink, then set it on the table. Therefore there’s a 93.752% chance that the glass is half full, but we can’t be entirely certain.”

    But here’s a thought, though: What if you fill it halfway and then drink it? Does it switch to being half empty right when you start to drink it? Or does that happen when you decide in your mind to drink it instead of filling it the rest of the way? Likewise, what if you fill it all the way and drink half of it, then fill it up again? Does it suddenly switch from being half empty to being half full?

    So my point is, do you measure the glass by what happened in the past or by what’s going to happen in the future? Why do people always assume that how it went in the past is also how it will go in the future?

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