How full is your glass

Is the glass half full or half empty?

The question of whether the glass is half full or half empty is almost proverbial. Those who see the glass half full are optimistic - those who see it half empty are pessimistic. Some orientate themselves towards the good, others fear the worst. So far so good - but is one or the other better?

Originally, optimism and pessimism are two philosophical positions. In the theodicy Leibniz took the optimistic view that we live in the best possible of all worlds and that the world generally has something good in store for us. Voltaire, however, polemicized in the Candide Leibniz's optimism assumption and postulated that the world is bad and nothing more than bad can be expected of it. Voltaire was thus a typical pessimist. Which of the two positions is fundamentally correct is a philosophical question and as such cannot be answered. However, whether it is better to be optimistic or pessimistic is a psychological question - and there is an answer to that.

A large number of psychological studies have shown that optimists are happier than pessimists. For example, there are far fewer depressed people among the optimists than among the pessimists. And optimists are on average more self-assured, more self-realized, more autonomous, more adjusted and more balanced, yes, overall, mentally healthier.

So, according to research, optimism is good for the psyche, and it seems wise to see the glass as half full (not half empty). Amazingly, people in general seem to behave according to this principle too, leaning towards optimistic rather than pessimistic attitudes. People overestimate the likelihood that something good will happen to them personally and underestimate the likelihood that something negative will happen to them at the same time. For example, we rate the probability of winning the lottery (positive event) higher for ourselves than for others. In contrast, studies show that most people believe that they are less likely to die in a plane crash (negative event) than others. Most people are with it unrealistic optimists.

Since optimism has many positive consequences, unrealistic optimism often contributes to one's own well-being. At the same time, however, unrealistic optimism also harbors dangers: Those who believe they can master everything may find themselves too naive in dangerous situations or fail to recognize when it is time to finally give up on a long-unsuccessful goal. In addition, it would be possible for people with unrealistic optimism to pursue self-damaging behavior more carelessly, according to the motto: "I won't get lung cancer anyway, then I can smoke two packs of cigarettes a day." Nevertheless, all in all, the positive consequences of an unrealistically high level of optimism seem to outweigh the negatives. So it seems that a half full glass is healthier than a half empty one!

Taylor, E.S. & Brown, J.D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. In: Psychological Bulletin, 103(2), 193-210.

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