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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A Glass is a Glass

Ok, so I have a moment now to further express my view on tumblers bisected by air-liquid interfaces:

Re. glass half-empty or half-full, Mathemajician* says:

You have interpreted the little "half full or half empty" idea in a different way. You have taken what is usually seen as the negative view and interpreted it as positive by expanding the context. However, this actually agrees with the point I am making: namely that being positive doesn't have to imply denying reality in any way.

Where another might feel depressed that the world isn't what it should be, you take this as a sign of possibilities. Both of you could agree on the objective facts of the current situation, but still feel totally differently about it. Of course how you feel often affects how you act, and the depressed person is unlikely to exploit or even see the opportunities that somebody in your frame of mind would.

And Aaron says:

It doesn't seem like a fair evaluation for you to assume the half-empty person reacts correctly and the half-full person doesn't. Why can't someone say "my glass is half-full", and then make a good evaluation of how soon to call for more?

There may well be some perceptual distortion. Half-full may be more likely to incorrectly delay ordering more. But half-empty may be more likely to incorrectly order more too soon for exactly the same reasons. If both involve distortion, I'll take the happier one...

And Garrett* says:

But your point is well taken: maximizing happiness over time requires making accurate predictions. However, I think leaning toward optimism, at the expense of a little realism, may maximize happiness overall, simply as a result of psychology. What do you think of that statement?

And Radiantsun* says:

I think you're assuming that just because a guy is happy (the half full guy) with the way his glass is, doesn't mean he is incapable of planning for the future of the glass--it doesn't take a genius to know that his glass will be empty and if he wants to maintain the happiness from a half full glass, he should do something about it.

By the same token, the half empty guy, may be so afraid that his glass will never be full and this is all the water he will ever have, that he doesn't drink the water, and doesn't realize he can signal the water, and then dies a nasty death of dehydration.

I agree with Mathemajician*, that being positive doesn't have to imply denying reality in any way. I find Aaron and Garrett*'s implication to the contrary, well, downright cynical--and it's that inherent cynicism (and the real consequences thereof) which I object to in the whole "betterment through self-deception" approach.

The problem I see with these and other metaphors from the positive-thinking meme pool is that they offer a local maximum--a sort of trap between a lower and higher point. The lower point--the one which people rightfully want to escape from--is a place where things are bad and out of your control. The mid point, the trap which attracts people from the lower point like moths to a flame, is a place where things are good and out of your control. Of course, these two points are really exactly the same place, except for how they are viewed, so the improvement is primarily one of mental state, plus whatever actual improvements may come as a side-effect of that. Yes, I acknowledge there are many ways people function better with a more positive emotional state. But there are costs as well, and whichever outweighs the other is not nearly so important as the neglected third, truly higher point: the place where things are both good and bad--and within your control.

The problem with people who only see the glass as half-empty is not that they see the glass as half-empty, but that they stop there. People who only see the glass as half-full have the same problem--they're just less likely to recognize it as a problem.

Human nature is to identify problems and improve them. If you take away someone's sense of control over reality (a well refined specialty of modern schools and many parents), then their nature becomes simply to identify problems. This is common, and this is what the positive-thinking meme camp is trying to correct. However, rather than fixing the part that's broken, their solution is to break the other part--teach people to notice the ways in which things are good rather than the ways in which things are bad. This turns out to be pretty easy, since there's really quite an endless list of things which have to be just the way they are in order for us to be alive at all, let alone with all this surplus to enjoy. Yay, the sun came up again! Yay, evolution worked! Yay, there's a place that will gas up my car in exchange for little green pieces of paper. And so on. But of course, all of this is just a subtler way of saying: hey, things could be worse.

But that's not human nature. Human nature isn't to say hey, things could be worse--it's to say hey, things could be better! And then to make them so. This is why people riding these positive thinking memes never find peace of mind. Ten years later, they're still on about it, because it's still an issue for them and something they need to work on. They may look positive on the outside, but in truth they're still just trying to balance out what's on the inside. And what's on the inside is: it's out of my control.

Fact is, this is a much harder thing to fix than just choosing to look at the positive things. That's why these memes end up phrased the way they do--they have evolved to fit the path of least resistance. The glass is half full, and you are grateful for it. This is very easy and comforting because it involves no responsibility. But it is not truly a positive outlook, because it presumes many negative things: that the half empty glass should cause you emotional distress, that the state of the glass is not ultimately up to you, and so on. In effect, to claim the best answer is "half full" is to create a negative where one needn't exist--the truly positive answer is, simply, and happily, "the two are the same, silly." (Likewise for gratitude lists--why would someone choose to write a gratitude list rather than a goals and accomplishments list? The latter is called "getting organized" and works with the way your mind is evolved to function.)

The problem with any crutch is that you're sending yourself the signal that you need it--subtly reinforcing negative and dis-empowering presuppositions. If you are truly stuck dwelling on the negative, then yes this is a problem to be fixed, but the solution begins with asking yourself why you're doing it, and treating that at its root. Treating symptoms superficially, when there is a chronic underlying problem, almost invariably just results in an addiction to the treatment.

A truly positive outlook means: dreaming without reservations about what you would enjoy today, tomorrow, and beyond; planning without fear what you can do to actualize those things; and enjoying without guilt the enjoyable things as they happen. None of these inherently require self-deception, so if you are having problems with them, find and solve the problems--don't cement them in under short-sighted work-arounds.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com