Be A Pollyanna -- It's Not What You May Think
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
If I'm going to reference or criticize something, I want to have actually investigated the original material. For many years I've heard or read sneers about "being a Pollyanna" or "Pollyannaish." The same kind of sneers I've heard or read about positive psychology, positive thinking and affirmations. And since I've been developing an additional website dedicated to positive psychology, positive living, etc., I recently decided to read the book Pollyanna.
Because I've found the sneers about the "positives" come from ignorance, misinformation, misunderstanding and misinterpretation, I had a suspicion about the classic children's story as well. And my suspicion was confirmed. The sneers come from people who've never actually read the book or from those who read only for story line and never notice the underlying themes and messages.
Although it is very much dated material, reflecting the behaviors and expectations of an outdated culture -- and despite showing a few unrealistic outcomes even for its time period -- it is a valid and inspiring parable.
The newly orphaned Pollyanna arrives in Vermont to live with her aunt Polly, a stern and strict woman who has been disappointed in life. Pollyanna lives by a philosophy called the "glad game." Her father, minister of a small, poor church, taught Pollyanna a philosophy of finding somethings to be "glad" about in even the most trying situations. And Pollyanna both practices the game herself and teaches the game to anyone and everyone she meets. She positively affects the lives of many in the town, and they return the favor when she is the victim of a horrible accident and loses her optimism.
There is nothing particularly unrealistic about the game. It is merely a philosophy of putting a positive spin on the facts of any given situation, while still recognizing the problems and pains. No one is encouraged to ignore the facts. They are merely asked to consider their meanings and possibilities in the most positive light. Sounds like good psychology to me. Lemons? Lemonade!
Furthermore, in positive psychology you are asked not merely to look at positive explanations and possible positive outcomes, but also at character strengths, abilities and virtues. From that point of view, a particular section of the book sounds as if it might have come right out of a positive psychology text:
"What men and women need is encouragement. Their natural resisting powers should be strengthened, not weakened.... Instead of always harping on a man's faults, tell him of his virtues. Try to pull him out of his rut of bad habits. Hold up to him his better self, his REAL self that can dare and do and win out!... The influence of a beautiful, helpful, hopeful character is contagious, and may revolutionize a whole town.... People radiate what is in their minds and in their hearts. If a man feels kindly and obliging, his neighbors will feel that way, too, before long. But if he scolds and scowls and criticizes -- his neighbors will return scowl for scowl, and add interest!... When you look for the bad, expecting it, you will get it. When you know you will find the good -- you will get that.…"
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins says it's important to "find an empowering meaning in anything that life gives you." Folks pay big bucks to listen to him say things like that. People do need to hear, believe and practice some positive thinking in order to be motivated, successful and happy. Elizabeth Borton, was saying the same in her book, Pollyanna. In 1913.
Of course, I don't expect you to get a copy of Pollyanna and read it. However well done it is, it's fiction for young people (primarily girls) to read. I read it simply for the purpose of being able to point out that, for quite some time, people of all kinds have been introducing us to the concepts that serious psychologists are studying and turning into therapeutic tools.
Yes, there are the fools, the crackpots, and the merely misguided offering misleading ideas about positivity -- as well as many other concepts. But if you look for it, you will find much that is accurate and helpful. Just use a bit of good sense, read some reliable authorities to make more informed judgements and don't dismiss positivity out of hand simply because some folks sneer at it.
Oh, and it is a myth that there is research proving pessimists are more realistic than optimists. So go ahead and be a Pollyanna. After all, optimists have been shown to perform and produce better than pessimists.
C.S. Clarke, Ph.D. is a psychologist and performance coach who originated the Superperformance® concept in human performance improvement and publishes the sites Superformance.com® (Human Performance and Achievement Resources) and EverydayDelight.com.™ Superperformance is a trademark.