How Full Is Your Glass?

Tom Morris

One night at dinner time, when he was thirteen years old, my son Matt walked into the room, put his plate down on the table, and said "Dad, I've figured out that glass question." I drew a total blank.

"What glass question, Matt?", I asked as I quickly searched my memory for anything we might have been talking about in the preceding minutes or hours. Some question about a glass in the kitchen? On the table? Window glass? Nothing came to mind.

He looked up and said "You know, the one about the glass being half empty or half full." Oh, that glass question. The well known philosophical and psychological conundrum, right up there on the All-Time-Famous-Questions-List with that old childhood puzzle of which came first, the chicken or the egg, and the irritating classroom riddle of whether a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound even if there's no one around to hear it.

You know the scenario: A water glass contains liquid up to its midpoint. The question is then asked whether the glass is half empty or half full. We're told that a pessimist will say it's half empty, while an optimist will say it's half full. The situation is supposed to be a sort of Rorschach Test for inner attitude. It's assumed that there is no objectively right answer. What you say will be determined by what you are, not by what the glass is.

Well, Matt wasn't about to buy that. He had heard the question somewhere, and apparently it had been bothering him. He now had an answer. "So, what's the answer?", I asked with sincere curiosity. And he said something which proved again that you can be a philosopher at almost any age.

Matt thought for a second and replied, "It all depends. If you were filling the glass just before you got to that point, it's half full. If you were drinking from it or pouring it out just before, then it's half empty."

Aha! "It all depends," people have always said, but they've thought it depends on the attitude of the person looking at the glass. Matt couldn't accept that as the final answer. It does all depend, but it depends on what real process had been going on to bring the glass to its present state. What something is sometimes depends on where it came from, on how it got to be as it is, and maybe even on where it's in the process of going. That's a pretty profound insight."

There is a lesson here for us all. How's your life these days? Is it pretty good, or is it pretty bad? Is it half full, or half empty? It all depends. Have you been emptying it out, dissipating your energies, squandering your deepest self, and losing everything of real value, or have you been filling it up in the best possible way, adding things of true worth to your daily experience? Have you been depleting or enriching yourself? What process is going on in your life right now?

These questions bring us close to some others. What does it take to live a genuinely good and happy life? What exactly is involved in living a life full of all the right things? How can we fill our days with what we most truly need? And how can we avoid emptying ourselves out in ways that leave us unhappy, unfulfilled, and unable to do the good that we really long to accomplish?

I believe that, as a society, we are facing a crisis. I like to call it "the good life crisis." It's a little like the famous mid-life crisis we've heard so much about for decades. But it isn't really about red convertibles and the beach. It's not fundamentally a psychological crisis at all. It's a deeper philosophical problem that we didn't see coming, but that touches everything we think and do.

Everywhere I go, I see people in their forties and fifties experiencing the good life crisis. Twentysomethings are troubled by it. Teenagers, people in their thirties, and even many individuals facing retirement are feeling its effects, although, across the board, most people seem not to understand exactly what the problem is. Mistaking the symptoms for the disease, they often look for a cure in all the wrong places.

The problem is that, in our opportunity rich and pressure packed world, without a well thought through personal philosophy to steer by, without real wisdom to rely on, people are emptying their lives of what really counts and filling them with all sorts of clutter instead. They are accepting counterfeits for all the real values they need. And, far too often, they don't know what's causing the trouble that they can't help but feel.

The great seventeenth century scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal believed that we all too often empty our lives of the most important things until they're hollow, and then clutter them up with junk. During the opening weeks and months of this new year, do something about the good life crisis as it may be felt in your own life, in your own heart, and in the lives and hearts of the people closest to you. Give yourself and them time for the little things that really matter. And begin to fill all your glasses up in the best possible way.

That's the recipe for having a great day, week, month, and year. May you have a great one!


Visit Tom's New Website and Blog!

Also Visit the Site for Tom's New Novels!

EMAIL TOM HERE: TomVMorris(at)

The Morris Institute is based on the philosophical work of Tom Morris
and the Morris Institute Fellows, as they bring wisdom to life for people throughout the world.

2012 Morris Institute for Human Values, All rights reserved.