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Pollyanna was not an optimist and why optimism is the best strategy


All that most people know about Pollyanna is that calling someone that name is not a good thing. It is an effective way to discourage someone from undertaking something overly optimistic. The reference dismisses optimism as a way to support health and happiness and build success. But few people know the full story and I suggest that Pollyanna was not an optimist at all.

Pollyanna is the main character in the novel Pollyanna, by Eleanor Porter, published in 1913 and the basis for a 1960  Disney movie. The title character is a young girl who, after both her parents have died, is sent to live with her only remaining relative, a reclusive and stern aunt, who reluctantly takes her into her home.

To everyone she meets, Pollyanna explains “the glad game” that her father taught her before he died. He believed that no matter what happens, there’s always something to be glad about. One should always hunt for the positive aspects in seemingly bad experiences. The game originated one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll, received only a pair of crutches. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna’s father taught her to look at the good side of things—in this case, to be glad about the crutches because “we didn’t need to use them!”

With this philosophy, and her own sunny personality and sincere, sympathetic soul, Pollyanna brings so much gladness to her aunt’s dispirited town that she transforms it into a pleasant place to live. The glad game shields her from her aunt’s stern attitude: when Aunt Polly puts her in an ugly attic room with no pictures, rugs or mirrors, she is glad for it. If she had a nice bedroom, she probably wouldn’t notice the beautiful trees outside her window. Had her aunt given her a mirror, she would have to look at her freckles. When her aunt tries to punish Pollyanna for being late to dinner by sentencing her to a meal of bread and milk in the kitchen with the servant, she thanks her rapturously because she likes bread and milk, and she likes the servant.

Pollyanna plays the game with others too. When a man breaks his leg walking down the street, Pollyanna reminds him that he should feel glad that he only broke one leg. She tells the gardener who is complaining about his bent back that he should feel glad about it; after all, he does not have to stoop as far to do his weeding because he’s already part way there. Her aunt, too—finding herself helpless before Pollyanna’s buoyant refusal to be downcast—gradually begins to thaw, although she resists the glad game longer than anyone else.

Eventually, however, even Pollyanna’s robust optimism is put to the test when she is hit by a car and her legs become paralyzed. Her response, for once, seems realistic. She is grief-stricken and recognizes that it is easier to tell others to feel good about their plight than to tell oneself the same thing. She admits that the game is not fun if it is really hard to play.

Still she is determined to find a reason to feel good about her plight. She decides she is glad that she cannot walk because her accident has caused her stern aunt to soften up. The novel ends happily: the aunt marries her former lover and Pollyanna is sent to a hospital where she learns to walk again, able to appreciate the use of her legs far more as a result of being temporarily disabled.

The story of Pollyanna illustrates the popular conception of “blind optimism.” She plays her game insensitively, regardless of the people or the situation. Pollyanna’s optimism is mindless and silly. To say “it’s going to be alright, you’ll be fine” doesn’t make sense when someone is very sad about something. When you lose a loved one or something that is dear to you, grief is the appropriate reaction. At such a moment a slap on the back is a naive, irritating and often very offensive response.

The optimism I will explore in future posts is about the active response that anyone can choose in any situation. Optimism can help people to approach the world in an active fashion: not taking things as they come—and becoming depressed about them—but trying to mend the situation in a different, better way. As Christopher Peterson and Lisa Bossio wrote in their book Health and Optimism, “Optimism is not an exercise in fantasy, but a reality-based belief system that leads us to be active and effective in our lives, working toward good outcomes while avoiding bad ones.” Our ability to respond lies at the root of our happiness, health and success.

For more information on active optimism, download my free “7 Reasons to be an Optimist.”

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. H. Dadlani #

    It was a good one ! At least it keeps one’s Hope’s alive .

    And, that’s a very positive excuse to Live more and feel
    that U R alive.

    October 20, 2013
  2. Tammy Westergard #

    Thanks to the Optimist team. Indeed the intention to focus on the positive radiates big positive energy. Congrats on the launch of this blog!

    October 20, 2013
  3. Sandy #

    There came a time in my life where I joined a 12 step group. Here I learned to focus on my behavior not other people’s behavior and to recognize things could be worse. Which I did. When the car broke down on the side of the road, my response was “at least it isn’t raining”. I was told that I was a Pollyana. Funny though, nothing was so bad because it could of been worse. This was a game I played with myself and it worked. I have continued this game for almost 20 years now and I carry my Pollyana label with pride.

    October 20, 2013
  4. Bob Nozik, MD #

    Pollyanna’s Game (PG)(the ‘Just be glad’ game) is one of my 12 keys to happiness. It works because very few things in life are either ALL good or ALL bad; just about everything is a mix of both. Still, PG is not intended for use with the REALLY bad stuff (like when Pollyanna’s dad dies) it is meant for the ordinary ‘bad’ stuff we all experience several times every day. Making it a habit allows us to reduce the cumulative downward pull of those small, everyday downers…it is VERY effective.

    October 20, 2013
  5. I am looking forward to reading your blogs on optimism-in-context. I agree that blind optimism may mislead a person into interpreting the meaning of optimism given the unique challenges posed in one’s life. Feelings largely affect decisions. Both feelings and decisions have contexts. Congratulations on your new blog!

    October 20, 2013
  6. judy martin #

    Knowing the difference between the Pollyanna’s game and realism is key to living a fulfilling life I believe. Looking forward to your blog. Congratulations.

    October 20, 2013
  7. It is not what we think that matters. Our thoughts happen at the speed of light and we can’t always control them. It is how we then react to those thoughts that makes the difference. The Pollyanna story (and thanks for the reminder of this story) is all about choosing a reaction to circumstances rather than letting the circumstances dictate our emotional responses. Optimism is never blind, but a choice… a switch if you like. We experience something we don’t want and our immediate thoughts are down. We think about those thoughts, take a pause, and consciously choose a different reaction. That is optimism in action. For me optimism is not an emotion, but a deliberate reaction. In choosing it we change the effect of the circumstances on our expereicne.


    October 20, 2013
  8. Dorothy McDonald #

    Eleanor Porter also wrote another book which people haven’t heard of much. It is called Just David, and is a wonderful book about another child who made people happier wherever he went. It is free in Kindle format on Amazon.

    Another little Eleanor Porter fact: She is the daughter of Gene Stratton Porter who wrote wonderful books a generation earlier. Many of her books are free for Kindle on Amazon. Start with The Girl of the Limberlost.

    October 20, 2013
  9. Doris Lucas #

    Thanks to the Optimist Team! I agree with optimism with realism. It is always better to realize ‘the glass is half full rather than half empty’ – however, your glass is still not completely full. Love the magazine – the only one that I read from cover to cover each and every time.

    October 20, 2013
  10. And I might add, as you have stated before Jurriann, the importance of living a life of meaning – finding & using our natural gifts to share with the world – can help create a foundation of optimism. If we are doing what we enjoy, we will naturally be happier & more optimistic.
    Thank you for all you do.

    October 20, 2013
  11. Jackson Mayes #

    Bravo Jurriaan! Thank you brother. I think it’s all about practice. The result of practicing pessimism is summed up in one of my favorite one-liners from Richard Bach’s Illusions…”Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” (pg. 100). Optimism affirms limitless positive possibilities. I’ll stick with that option.

    October 22, 2013
  12. Daniel #

    This is a great post Jurriaan! I look forward to reading the rest of your posts. People need more reasons to be optimistic!

    October 23, 2013
  13. Jurriann!

    This blog has jumped to the top of my list with your very first post. Of course, having been a fan of yours since the Ode days helped . . . Knowing I’ll be getting that distillation of fact and awe you synthesize so well.

    It’s a real and genuine thrill to see you posting about ‘realistic positivism.’

    I can’t wait to spread the word —


    October 24, 2013

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