Have you ever found yourself in a debate with your mates after a few too many about whether the glass is really half full or half empty? Of course most of us know that how you view the proverbial glass within these parameters is believed to tell you something about your personality. Generally speaking, if you see the cup as half empty, you’re considered a pessimist. Whereas viewing the glass as half full, makes you an optimist. So which one are you? Why is it so important to know? Can you change from being a pessimist to an optimist? Let’s find out.
Glass half empty or full image from Shutterstock
Michael Carthy is a therapist, coach and wellness consultant with more than eight years experience. Over the years, he has worked with hundreds of CEOs and entrepreneurs in both a therapy and coaching capacity.
Why it pays to be an optimist
Sure it’s a bit of a cliche, seems achingly simple and maybe not even a big deal. But the way you view the glass (and the wider world around you) actually has major ramifications for how you live your life.
For example, recent studies suggest that those who see the glass as half full are likely to live longer, suffer from less illness throughout their lives, recover quicker if something does happen, perform better at sports and in work, cope better through difficult situations and even score higher on subjective well-being and happiness scales than their pessimistic counterparts.
Where does your pessimism or optimism come from?
For many years it was thought that a person’s perception of events as either optimistic or pessimistic was hardwired into their brain. Therefore this would mean that people would have to deal with the outlook they were born with, because there was no way to change it. However, a lot of contemporary science says otherwise.
Many now believe that we can actually learn pessimism and a feeling of helplessness. And on the flip-side of that coin, we can actually learn empowerment and how to be optimistic. In fact, there have been more studies expanding our understanding of optimism in the last ten years than in the history of psychology as a whole.
So where does it really come from? Many believe we’re born optimistic. After all, it makes little (but admittedly, some) evolutionary sense for us to be pessimistic and helpless. But at the same time, we’re similar to the animals we evolved from in many, many ways. We are, you could argue, moral animals but any major distinction between us and our hairy ancestors seems to stop there. Because we are myopic in nature and often highjacked by the same evolutionary mechanism that determines some of the most idiotic automatic behaviour.
That means it’s no surprise many of us shift from being optimistic to pessimistic easily, quickly and with a lasting effect. And largely, it’s environmental factors that determine whether we are pessimistic or optimistic. When describing learned helplessness, many experts use a widely-known metaphor and thought experiment (there’s some debate about whether it actually happened, the general consensus being it didn’t) to illustrate how it can be learned easily and can be the product of conditioning and your environment.
So here’s how it goes. There are five monkeys placed in a large cage. There’s a ladder in the middle of the floor and at the top of the ladder beyond the reach of the cage there sits a bunch of bananas. The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb up the ladder. As he does, the monkey gets sprayed with a stream of cold water and then the remaining monkeys get sprayed too.
The monkey on the ladder scrambles off and all five monkeys sit on the floor scratching their heads, bewildered. Soon though the temptation becomes too great and another monkey starts to climb the ladder again towards the treat, again the monkey and the remaining monkeys get sprayed with cold water. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him.
Now in the experiment, one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins the climb towards his waiting treat, again this monkey is pulled off and beaten by the other monkeys. They don’t want to get sprayed.
And, here’s where it gets really interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, following suit he begins to climb the ladder, and yet again he is pulled off and beaten by the other monkeys, including the earlier new monkey who remember, had never been actually sprayed by cold water.
By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray of the water, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.
Now without getting into the ins-and-outs of this experiment, it’s useful because its findings have been replicated on smaller and larger scales in studies of other animals and humans too. And it’s not that hard to believe either. Because despite the value placed on innovation and creativity from our families and education, metaphorical cold water is often poured on people and their ideas whenever they try something new. Or, perhaps worse, the others collectively suppress innovation or the unfamiliar, and this fear to try anything new spreads throughout our society. And in a nutshell that’s the idea of learned helplessness in all its glory.
The concept of learned helplessness was discovered fortuitously by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. They had initially observed helpless behaviour in a study of dogs (and yes, this one definitely happened), which were conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone.
Later, the dogs were placed in a shuttlebox that contained two chambers separated by a low easily escapable barrier. The floor was electrified on one side, and not on the other. The dogs previously subjected to the electric shock through classic conditioning then made no attempts to escape, even though avoiding the shock simply involved jumping over the small barrier. They had learned to be helpless.
This concept has been the study of investigation and is the starting point of Seligman’s must-read book, Learned Optimism. Seligman provides ways to move over from the dark side of the force, if you will, towards the light. He believes that as much as we learn to be pessimistic (and dutifully lay there taking our painful shocks), there’s also plenty of potential to revert back to an outwardly optimistic perspective and jump to freedom. So to speak.
So how can you learn optimism?
Well, the best place to start is to find out whether you’re really a pessimist or an optimist. Sure whether the glass is half full or half empty to you is a decent start, but hit this link to take the standardised test from Stanford and Martin Seligman to find whether what he calls your explanatory style is really optimistic or pessimistic. You’ll answer 48 questions that really get into the nitty-gritty of your thinking patterns.
So are you an optimist or a pessimist? Let us know in the comments.
This article originally appeared on Lifehacker UK