Cover image for Half empty, half full : understanding the psychological roots of optimism
Half empty, half full : understanding the psychological roots of optimism
Vaughan, Susan C.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt, [2000]

Physical Description:
xiv, 240 pages ; 24 cm
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BF698.35.O57 V38 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this fascinating book, Columbia University research scientist and psychoanalyst Susan Vaughan argues that our fundamental view of life as half empty or half full is determined by our capacity for emotional self-modulation. Based on her years of experience as a therapist and researcher, Dr. Vaughan shows how a sense of control over feelings like anger, anxiety, sadness, and even elation promotes optimism and well being. In contrast, feeling out of control makes us pessimistic and glum. Dr. Vaughan asserts that the roots of self-control are laid down through early interactions with caretakers, everyday experiences that literally shape the neural circuitry of the brain. The pictures of self and other formed in the first three years establish the basis for mood modulation in later life. How to limit the impact of early life and reshape our neural circuitry for effective mood modulation is the promise, and the gift, of this book. A convivial and accessible writer, Vaughan engages the reader in a conversation about what really determines whether we see the proverbial glass-as well as ourselves and the world around us-as half empty or half full.

Author Notes

Susan C. Vaughan, M.D. is assistant professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

With so many recent books on depression, it is refreshing to see one on optimism. Psychiatrist Vaughan believes that "optimism is the result of an internal process of illusion building," not inflexible biology. Individuals can learn how to look at life and problems in an optimistic manner, and this skill can help them in their approaches to relationships, themselves, work, etc. Parents can play major roles in teaching children to be resilient and forge positive and workable, not Pollyannaish, attitudes. It isn't so much a matter of what one thinks about as of how one thinks about it. Vaughan draws widely on her patients' stories to demonstrate how creating and using optimism can help one overcome many difficulties. She often makes her points strikingly, as when she proposes imagining the Empire State Building enshrouded in fog and asks whether it means the tower is no longer there and whether the right way of thinking about it can restore it. With its presentation of both theory and practice, Vaughan's guide should help many readers. --William Beatty

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this account of the development and treatment of pessimism, Vaughan (The Talking Cure; Viagra) contends that a pessimistic personality results from an individual's earliest experiences of frustration. These lead to the formation of cortical loops in the brain that encode the physiological basis for the expectation of disappointment and an overall negative outlook. Although temperamental traits are often viewed as intractable, Vaughan argues that psychotherapy aimed at promoting a sense of self-control over negative emotional states "can gradually chip away at long ingrained cortical patterns and gradually replace pessimism with optimism." But what is pessimism? Is it a truly unique form of psychopathology? By linking pessimism to original parent-child interactions, Vaughan implicitly ties it to "basic mistrust" or an "insecure attachment." However, Vaughan does not explain how "pessimism" differs from the depression and anger that have traditionally been associated with early experiences of frustration. This lack of rigor is accentuated by prose in which such stock phrases as "the ties that bind" or "pushing the envelope" stand for concrete descriptions of the problem of affective disorder and its treatment. Written for a general audience, this book lacks the conceptual clarity necessary for understanding psychological despair. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

According to Vaughan (psychiatry, Columbia; The Talking Cure), optimism is not an innate personality trait--one's ability to modify emotions and moods determines it. Early childhood experiences shape neural circuits in the brain, forming the basis for mood modulation in later life. Reviewing current research in psychology and neurology, Vaughan demonstrates that it is possible to change the impact of these early experiences, reshape brain circuitry, and develop an "illusion of control" over negative feelings and internal states. As an example of such self-mastery, Vaughan cites the late Jean- Dominique Bauby (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), who suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed his body but left his mind undamaged. Although Bauby could only communicate by blinking his left eye, he refused to succumb to self-pity and depression and remained optimistic. Vaughan writes in a clear, though repetitive, style. Recommended for popular psychology collections.--Lucille M. Boone, San Jose P.L., CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Vaughan's discussion is a curious amalgam of empirical research, examples from her psychoanalytic practice, analysis of Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Eng. tr., CH, Dec'97), and her reaction to the termination of her own analysis. Although adequately referenced, the book was written more for the intelligent layperson than for scholars. The writing flows easily: Vaughn (College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia Univ.) uses interesting metaphors, and she anticipates and responds well to anticipated questions from the reader. She also gives easy-to-understand examples of psychoanalytic therapy. Two of the author's revelations about herself raised concerns for this reviewer: first, in more than one place she mentions that she feels the most optimistic when she is speeding in her car; second, she seems tentative about the conclusion to her own analysis (one gets the impression she is not finished after all). Libraries looking for a more exhaustive and critical approach--and more than a discussion of the downside of optimism--will do better to purchase Optimism and Pessimism, ed. by Edward Chang (2000). General readers. ; Western New England College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prefacep. xiii
Chapter 1 The Illusion of an Islandp. 1
Chapter 2 Gorillas in our Midstp. 15
Chapter 3 In the Driver's Seatp. 39
Chapter 4 Vital Limbic Lessonsp. 61
Chapter 5 The Ties that Bindp. 95
Chapter 6 The Half-Empty Selfp. 123
Chapter 7 Strategies for Seeing the Glass Half Fullp. 145
Chapter 8 A Master Illusionist in Actionp. 173
Chapter 9 The Beacon on the Horizon, the Light Withinp. 197
Notesp. 219
Indexp. 233