I recently attended the immersion session for incoming students for the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania. This program is designed to bring various individuals from around the world once a month to learn the cutting edge research, ongoing initiative, and core principles in positive psychology.
The architect of the curriculum is Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and now considered the father of positive psychology. It is a rigorous and ambitious year-long program of courses, readings, lectures, group activities and projects designed to bring participants up to speed in this new, but geometrically exploding field. The five-day course I attended was peppered with stellar professors at the very pinnacle of their careers. Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth, Ray Baumeister, Barry Schwartz, and Barbara Fredrickson — all luminaries in the field — were among those making presentations.
But it was James O. Pawelski, Ph.D., director of education and Senior Scholar in the Positive Psychology Center who was able to lead us with a series of lectures on the foundations of positive psychology. He initiated one of his lectures with a slide of a glass filled halfway and smiled at us.
“So, what do you see?” he asked.
The answers ranged from giggles to the obvious answer, considering we were devotees of the positive psychology approach, and we all naturally assumed this was the introduction to a presentation on perception. It turned out it was, but not in the way any of us expected.
The naturally curious and well-read group began diving in philosophically, metaphysically and neurobiologically. We spent a good 20 minutes or so offering thoughts about how we saw the glass, with James fielding responses and challenging the answers. His engaging style had the ability to foster both support for an answer and a challenge to make us think. Finally he turned around and faced the slide on the screen, and then turned back to us.
“When I look at this,” he said, “I see a completely full glass.” Each of us took another gander at the slide. I can tell you this glass was only half filled to my eyes, and yes, I was willing to put forth the argument that it was seen that way rather than half empty, but there was no way it was full.
People challenged him, some spoke of distortions, or the fact that, like when you fill a water reservoir for your coffee maker there is a line that tells you “fill to here” because that is the “full” mark. But none of these defenses, descriptions or persuasions influenced James. He held firm, turning back to the screen and then back to us.
“No,” he said smiling, “that glass is definitely completely full.”
We stopped putting forth our points of view and waited to hear his explanation.
“It is completely full,” he began as he looked at each of us around the room, “half with water, and half with air.”
This rocked the class, but it dumbfounded me.
I realized that this truth had completely escaped me. I was so focused on the visual that I wasn’t able to look past it to the intangible. I was trained to understand the question and thought there were only two answers to choose from. The more I argued my perception, the further away I got from the truth and the greater understanding of the problem in front of me.
I now understood: The glass was indeed completely full.
This realization ushered in a more global discussion of what positive psychology is actually about. With all the hype it is receiving lately and the fact that it is being embraced on a worldwide level it has also caused some opponents to misperceive it as Pollyanna-ish: A type of misplaced enthusiasm that ignores the struggles of life. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Understanding the mechanisms that prompt resilience and such things as post-traumatic growth are woven into the understanding that a positive perspective is often evolved from a negative experience. The struggle is in understanding that the negative isn’t the final perception. There are other ways of perceiving and understanding the problems that allow for a true shift in perception.
What was interesting about this was to learn that the opponents saying we were Pollyanna-ish actually didn’t know the story of Pollyanna. She, as we learned, was not at all like the popular myth of the story. We read and came to understand she was often overwhelmed by sadness and grief, and what she actually displayed was a coping strategy, the glad game, to help her shift her perception and focus. She didn’t deny her reality, but rather demonstrated resilience in finding productive ways to cope.
During the five-day immersion I got to talk to many of my classmates. They were from all walks of life: a yoga instructor, a composer, a musician’s agent, a comedy writer, an opera composer, a TV producer, a physician, a personal trainer, to name a few. Almost to a person they explained a difficulty, a struggle that prompted them to move toward positive psychology. They seemed to be the very example of trying to reframe life toward greater well-being — in essence, what most people on the planet are trying to do.
So the air in my glass, or your glass, can be the negative aspects to life that we’ve had to overcome or cope with. It could be the spiritual features of life we may not be noticing (which seem to take on an even more important role as we age). It could be the unknown, the seemingly chance encounters that shape and mold our lives.
But whatever is in the air, there is one thing I can tell you for certain.
I will never see that glass again as half anything.
It is as full as it can possibly be.