Optimist, Pessimist or Realist?

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Most people are familiar with the phrase, “is the glass half-full or half-empty?”  The implication is that your perception of the water in the glass will suggest whether you tend to be an optimist or a pessimist.  However, there is a simple and more realistic third response which is rarely – if ever – given.  Before scanning ahead for the answer – any thoughts?  I did a quick – and unscientific – survey of 13 people in my office. I presented each person with a glass of water that was filled to the halfway point and said “half-full, half-empty?”  The results were that three people said “empty”, nine said “full” and the computer guy complained that technically it wasn’t precisely “half”.  One colleague said “empty… but I know it should be half-full.”  I also noticed that when the psychologist walks around the office doing surveys – people tend to smile nervously.  Our tendency to see one extreme position (optimist) or the other (pessimist) is strongly ingrained into our Western consciousness and worldview.  We may tend to oversimplify and split things into mutually exclusive categories such as black or white, good or bad, I like you or I don’t like you.

People only see what they are prepared to see

~Ralph Waldo Emerson~


If you think about it, arguably the most realistic and factual answer to my survey is … that the glass is both half-full and half-empty.  This is the position of the realist.  Why don’t we tend to perceive this apparently obvious answer until it’s pointed out?  Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “People only see what they are prepared to see.”

Psychologically, it is often beneficial to view things from this more balanced and flexible perspective in order to be better able to resolve issues rather than remain stuck.  For example, when we are angry with someone we may perceive them as ‘bad’ – e.g., “I have a terrible boss”.  However, a person is usually not all good or bad but more accurately exhibits both good and bad behaviours.  It may be true that your boss behaves in an overbearing manner; however, it may also be true that he is quite generous with bonuses and time-off.  If I over-simplify the way I view my boss it generates stronger negative feelings than are perhaps justified.  When I reframe my thinking to include his positive qualities, the strength of the negative feelings usually is reduced.  This is the starting point for eventually resolving difficulties with another person.

A technique used to increase empathy or perspective-taking is to imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes and remind ourselves of times when we may have behaved similarly – e.g., cut someone off when driving.  Usually, we appreciate when the other person gives us the benefit of the doubt and views it as only an error in judgement.

Are your friends and colleagues optimists, pessimists or realists?  Now you can find out.

Dr. Martin Phillips-Hing is a registered psychologist (#1361) with a private practice at Oakhill Counselling and Mediation Services in Abbotsford.  He can be reached via his website – www.psychologist1.com

[Article published in the Abbotsford Post – October 27, 2006]

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