There’s a common expression of a glass being half full or half empty that is used to determine a person’s perspective on life. If you see the glass as half full, it means that you’re optimistic, happy, and generally succeeding in life. On the contrary, seeing the glass as half empty means that you find no joy in life and see the future in the form of a heavy, dark cloud of doom.

Of course, this analogy is a little–if not a lot–exaggerated. To me, that’s always been a strange expression because in order to form a valid analysis, you’d need a cup that is perfectly half full (or half empty). It’s hard to come across a glass with a volume that is precisely made up of half liquid, and half air. The analogy wouldn’t be very accurate if the glass isn’t exactly half-half because, well, the perspective would be biased towards how little or how much liquid is inside the glass (ex: If there was more air than liquid, most people would say the glass is more empty than full).

If you look at the situation from afar, half full and half empty hold deeper meanings than just “optimistic :)” or “pessimistic :(“. We know that the figurative cup represents life, and the liquid inside the cup represents the sense of fulfillment and optimism toward life. If a person sees the cup as half full, they’re also partially acknowledging that the cup is half empty. There’s a sense of lacking; in our “figurative” metaphor, we’d always want a full cup instead of a half full one. So by admitting the cup is half full, the person feels a yearning for more, and a dissatisfaction towards the status of “half-full-ness” in the cup of life. On the other hand, a person seeing a cup as half empty acknowledges that the cup is not yet full, and that the emptiness is the room to grow, to expand their role and fulfillment in life. Looking at it this way, shouldn’t it seem that half-empty means “optimistic” while half-full should mean “pessimistic”?

There’s also the problem of what is inside the cup. Is it ordinary water? Refreshing orange juice? Bittersweet coffee? Or a strawberry smoothie? What if it’s green tea, and you hate green tea? What if it’s a venti iced caramel macchiato (your favorite Starbucks order)? The type of liquid inside the cup would also influence the person’s decision. If green tea is inside the cup, you’d probably say the cup is half empty in order to avoid acknowledging the icky, green mass of bitterness and despair. However, if a delicious mix of iced caramel and espresso swirled inside that cup, of course you’d say it’s half full (and also lament over how little is left of your delicious drink). Also, would the size of the cup also influence people’s decision?

Whether the “honorable cup of life” is half full or half empty is obviously a more complicated question than it appears to be. It’s hard to label somebody as an optimist or a pessimist solely based on their judgement of what substance occupies the volume inside a cup. So--is the cup half full or half empty, and what liquid is inside it?

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Published by Cindy Song