Half Empty, Half Full: The Psychological Roots of Optimism

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9780151004010: Half Empty, Half Full: The Psychological Roots of Optimism

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.

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Review:

Crack open Susan Vaughan's Half Empty, Half Full, check out the fat margins and the relatively large type size, and you might think one of two things: You'll either say, "Great! This'll be a quick read!" or you'll say to yourself, "What is this, a self-help book? This can't be science."

Either way, optimist or pessimist, you're going to be at least half-right. But--as Vaughan ultimately makes clear--it's the optimist who's going to win out on this one. A Harvard-trained research analyst and frequent contributor to Harper's Bazaar, the inarguably insightful Vaughan ably straddles the fence between self-help and applied psychology. Her thesis boils down to this: Some of us are lucky enough to be trained as optimists in our formative years; for the rest of us worry-warts, fear not--optimism can be learned. Alternating between dry papers, like "Mood congruent memory biases in anxiety and depression," and pop-psych concepts, like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's early 1990s notion of "flow," Vaughan comforts the afflicted with thoughtful explanations (often drawing from her experience as a therapist) and concrete advice--assuming, of course, you can get past her sometimes cloying references to "Tiggers" and "Eeyores."

Half Empty, Half Full is good news for pessimists, and even good science, a timely summary of the state of neuroscience, as it bolsters many theories of what Vaughan describes as the "positive psychology movement." The antidepressant Paxil, early cortico-limbic development, desperation in milk-treading lab rats, even Cocoa Crispies ("which are apparently like ambrosia to rats")--they're all here and, thanks to Vaughan, good reading and a compelling argument for not simply chalking up pessimism to factors beyond our control. --Paul Hughes

About the Author:

Susan C. Vaughan, M.D., is assistant professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, she is the recipient of numerous research awards and the author of The Talking Cure. Dr. Vaughan also writes frequently for Harper's Bazaar. She lives in Manhattan.

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