Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Achieving Happiness with Positive Thinking: Pollyanna



In my last column on this important topic I mentioned the value of positive thinking.  Most people agree that they would rather be happy than unhappy, positive rather than negative. But numerous critics of positive thinking scoff at what they describe as unrealistic optimism. Often they opine about the foolishness of being like Pollyanna.  This attitude has even made its way into the dictionary where the noun pollyanna is described as "an excessively or blindly optimistic person" and the adjective as "unreasonably or illogically optimistic."  In fact I used to be influenced by the argument that optimism should always be tempered by realism. What do you think?


To solve this dilemma, let's look at the actual Pollyanna as she appeared in a 1913 book by Eleanor Porter. I was delighted to read the book! If you're having a down day, you may want to read it yourself. Or if your children are struggling with problems, you may want to read it to them. But first, let's take a look at Pollyanna. The story begins when 11-year-old Pollyanna arrives to live with her stern Aunt Polly. After Pollyanna’s mother and siblings died, she had been raised in poverty by her father who had recently died. There was no one to care for Pollyanna except her Aunt who reluctantly felt she must do her duty. "It was an unpleasant task, but she could not ignore her responsibilities." Aunt Polly was a lonely spinster whose mother, father and sisters had also died.  Aunt Polly's servant Nancy was the first to note the contrast between the two as she saw how Pollyanna responded to being assigned a bare attic room in Aunt Polly's mansion.  Weeping over her fate, Pollyanna finally found herself able to play the Game of Glad which her father had taught her. "It's very simple, really... You must find something in everything to be glad about... For instance, if you see a pair of crutches, just be glad that you don't need them. That's all there is to it. Of course, sometimes it's very hard to find something to make you glad."  Wishing for pictures on her walls, Pollyanna walked to her window and exclaimed with joy, "Oh I didn't notice this before!... Look at this view. There is a church spire and a river shining like silver. I don't need pictures hanging on my wall when I can look out my window."  Noting Pollyanna’s transition from crying to happiness, Nancy was amazed, "quite certain that she had never met anyone like Pollyanna before."  After Aunt Polly outlined Pollyanna’s schedule wherein she would learn to read, to cook, sew and appreciate music, Pollyanna explained that she needed "time for living... of course I'd be breathing while I was doing all those things, but I wouldn't be living...I. need time to.. wander through the town and fields and find out about people and houses and everything."  To quickly summarize the rest of the book, Pollyanna's sunny personality, optimistic and positive approach to life and sincere helpful approach toward others brought the spirit of gladness to Aunt Polly's household and townspeople.  Impressed by Pollyanna, Dr. Chilton later described "the marvelous Ms. Pollyanna Whittier. She is a young girl of extraordinary powers... I think her secret is her overwhelming, endless sense of gladness... the Just Be Glad game. It has had an incredible effect on people. Men and women who barely noticed that the sun was shining can now talk for 20 minutes about its perfect color. It's astonishing, really. I don't know why someone didn't think of it sooner."


Let's note the similarities and differences between Pollyanna and Aunt Polly.  Realistically, Pollyanna arrived with nothing except a trunk with a few hand-me-down dresses given to her by the Ladies Aide society. Aunt Polly had all the advantages of wealth and power living in a beautiful mansion with servants at her disposal. However Pollyanna brought the secret of happiness living her life according to the Game of Glad whereas Aunt Polly had retreated from life to become a critical, complaining, unhappy recluse.  The typical realistic point of view would have Aunt Polly being the more fortunate person whose wealth could bring opportunities for happiness whereas Pollyanna’s future would likely be deprived and constrained to misery.  Thinking through the lessons of this book, I realized that "realism" is subjective according to the values of the observer. In fact, it may be more realistic to understand that the ability to play the Game of the Glad is more potent in achieving happiness in your lifetime than the advantages of wealth.  When mental health research finally started to investigate positive psychology, this research actually found that optimism and positive thinking are more related to long-term health and happiness than monetary fortune (at least beyond the bare necessities for survival.) For additional information you will find articles on various aspects of optimism and positive thinking in the Reading Room of my website.


Looking back on the criticism that a pollyanna person is blindly optimistic, note that the Pollyanna described in the book was keenly aware of the problems in her life but freely chose to be glad rather than constrained by her problems..  What is your choice?