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The Perils and Possibilities of Pollyanna

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It all started with my earlier post: Happiness Is Overrated. That article spawned a lively discussion about happiness versus joy.

Over the ensuing weeks, our conversation has included some interesting commentary from those we lovingly call "curmudgeons," people who not only don't see the pursuit of happiness as their main purpose in life, they look with a bit of suspicion on those who do, and the "Pollyannas," those who can always find the silver lining, even in the darkest of clouds.

At the risk of over simplifying a complex personality, we could characterize the curmudgeon as one who never sees an opportunity without a problem. Contrast that with the eternal optimist, Pollyanna, who never sees a problem without an opportunity.

In theory at least, these two personality styles would seem to be complementary and in fact, readers in both camps have shared about their great relationships with their counterparts.

As promised, this time we're taking a closer look at Pollyanna. How did she get to be the way she is? What does she really want? Can she be trusted? What are we to make of her?

Pollyanna gets her name from the character, Pollyanna Whittier, first portrayed in the novel Pollyanna, written by Eleanor H. Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was a little girl who always maintained a sunny disposition in spite of living through the most dire circumstances.

Orphaned at age 11 and sent to live with her curmudgeony old aunt, Miss Polly, she was made to live in the attic and live by Miss Polly's strict rules. But always, her heart and soul housed an adventuresome spirit and in her innocence, she ended up challenging the status quo and transformed the lives of those around her.

In spite of the fact that Pollyanna had plenty to be sad about, the casual observer would never have known it. Never complaining, she disarmed everyone by always finding something to be glad about, no matter the circumstances.

To the outside world, Pollyanna exuded confidence and optimism. Her character brings to mind another Pollyanna-type orphan portrayed by Shirley Temple in the 1934 movie, Bright Eyes, for which (together with her work in Little Miss Marker) Temple became the first child actor to receive an Academy Award. Her famous song in that movie, The Good Ship Lollipop summarizes a Pollyanna's take on life:

On the good ship lollipop
It's a sweet trip to the candy shop
where bon-bon's play,
on the sunny beach of peppermint bay

Lemonade stands, everywhere
crackerjack bands, fill the air,
and there you are,
happy landings on a chocolate bar.

Thus did Pollyanna get her reputation for being sugary sweet. She needed frequent and generous doses of sweetness to keep her sadness at bay. But occasionally in her most private moments, and missing her newly deceased father, Pollyanna could not hold back her tears.

"I just can't make myself understand that God and the angels needed my father more than I did", she would cry. But you can see her rationalization for her father's death; God and the angels needed him. That was a hard one even for Pollyanna to swallow.

To keep from being engulfed in sadness, Pollyanna became masterful at the "just being glad game," taught to her by her grieving father after the death of her mother.

You see, when you're hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget about the sad things.

became her motto. And thus, Pollyanna reminds us that no matter how bad things become, we can be glad they're not worse.

Pollyanna's Perils and Pitfalls

While Pollyanna's optimism has a certain appeal, and one cannot reject the benefits of looking on the bright side, there are obvious concerns that arise with this approach to life if the "Happiness Channel" is the only one permitted.

For with Pollyanna, one never knows for sure what's going on beneath the surface of her sunny exterior. Is she for real? Or is this a con job? Is she conning herself? Or is she cleverly using a pleasant personality to manipulate others to get what she wants? You see, this is the problem with Pollyanna. Others cannot be sure if what they see is what they get.

Needless to say, human beings are many-faceted, complex creatures. We operate on a multitude of emotional levels, not all of which are put on public display, to be sure. But with Pollyanna, there is seldom a chink in her armor of cheerfulness. In her obsession with being happy, she creates a one-dimensional persona, which seen in the light of day, doesn't quite add up. Seemingly impervious to even the most basic of human emotions, Pollyanna is often seen as less than authentic to some, and a downright phony to others.

While a curmudgeon is probably not as badass as he portrays himself to be, neither is Pollyanna as goody-goody as she pretends to be. While a curmudgeon appears to be overly complicated, a Pollyanna appears to be overly simple. Neither one is completely authentic. Both are acquired traits -- compensation for early experiences that overwhelmed a child's incomplete ego structure and inability to cope with disappointment and loss. Scratch the surface of a curmudgeon and you'll likely find a tender heart in hiding. Scratch the surface of a Pollyanna and you'll likely find repressed insecurity and loneliness.

Pollyanna's cheerful personality serves as a kind of security blanket, a way to comfort and buffer herself against the winds of life's disappointments. If she can make everyone feel good about (fill in the blank) her own insecurities can be put to rest or at least remain below the surface of her conscious awareness.

Thus, for Pollyanna, denial plays a major role in perpetuating the fantasy that life will always have a happy ending. This pattern keeps her arrested in a child-like state, limited in depth and range and tending towards innocence and naiveté. She never gains access to wisdom acquired from navigating the deeper waters of her psyche and fails to develop the courage and ego strength required to explore the darker realms and confront her own shadow material.

Another fictional character, Peter Pan, was a Puer-Pollyanna type who never wanted to grow up. Michael Jackson is a classical example of this personality type. I wrote about Jackson's Puer tendencies last year at the time of his tragic death. You can read that article here.

Jackson is a classic example of a Pollyanna's denial mechanism run amok. His own dark past had him fixate on creating a world called Neverland, where he could find refuge from the pain of living in the world.

Tragically, Jackson's life ended when his attempts to escape reality went too far. With his scandal-riddled career and financial empire in ruins, Jackson took on the gargantuan task of attempting to resurrect himself with an ambitious concert schedule at a time when his physical, mental and emotional states were extremely fragile. As we know, this Pollyanna's story did not have a happy ending.

Pollyanna's Possibilities

Lest you think I am overly focused on the bad news about Pollyanna, let me set the record straight. As one who cops to a mild streak of Pollyanna in my own character make up, I must also come to her defense and point out some of her more admirable qualities.

While she may run the risk of being interpreted as overly simple and naive, in a world filled with darkness, Pollyanna reminds us to look for what's right about life rather than what's wrong. Pollyanna is also inherently kind and thoughtful. She brings to others what she unconsciously wants for herself.

In need of some good news? Seek out a Pollyanna. She will find good news in the most unlikeliest of places and turn frowns into smiles. She can be very handy to have around when the sh*t or the diagnosis hits the fan.

Pollyanna is the one who remains filled with wonder and curiosity when others have given up on life. She is tethered to the very idea that anything is possible if one has enough faith and trust in the goodness of people and life. To her, the "impossible dream" is just a dream that hasn't yet been realized and if she decides to go for it, she'll be unstoppable.

If she strikes a middle path and doesn't take her tendencies to extremes, Pollyanna benefits from the powerful qualities found in the optimistic approach to life. Dr Martin E. Seligman, the modern scholar most often associated with studying the traits of optimists, and former president of the American Psychological Association and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has devoted decades to studying optimistic people. He reports three traits they have in common:

They view adversity in their lives as temporary, specific and external, that is, not entirely their fault, as opposed to pessimists who view adversity as unchangeable, pervasive, and more personal. In the face of setbacks, challenges or difficult jobs, pessimists are more likely to do worse than predicted and even give up, while optimists will persevere. Optimism, therefore, is also an important component of achievement, and is especially important in times of chaos, change and turbulence. Those who have an optimistic outlook will roll with the punches, will be more proactive and persistent and will not abandon hope.

As reported here in the HuffPo and elsewhere, experts see more trouble ahead for the developed world. In light of such a pessimistic outlook, it seems like the world could use a bit of Pollyanna's optimism about now, tempered with a sobering dose of realism about where we are and how we're going to move forward.

In this age of technology, when we're looking to hybrid approaches for solutions to our most daunting challenges, maybe it's time for human beings to develop themselves as hybrids. Here are what a couple of readers from last week offered on this subject:

Lawson Meadows:

I will continue being a happy person, unwilling to put up with any BS... Is that a "Pollymugeon" or a "Curmugolly"??

Arithrianos:

"I could be a curpollyudgeon, everything is love and light, and that includes muck darkness, suffering, ignorance and even hatred. Hatred is frustrated love."

What do you think? Would you rather be a Pollyanna, a curmudgeon or a hybrid? Before you decide, here's a homework assignment to help you understand Pollyanna better:

Practicing Pollyanna

If you want to fully appreciate what it's like to be Pollyanna, try walking in her shoes for a week. Take what comes and find what there is to be glad about, no matter what. Take this as a challenge.

Curmudgeons, I dare you to do this. Get off automatic, notice your resistance, and go for it anyway. I know "going for it" is not your style. You're much more comfortable sitting back and counting all the reasons why it won't work. But just for fun, just because, take a note out of Pollyanna's playbook for a week and see what happens. I'm dying to hear what you learn in the process.

Please stop by the comment section and let us know how all this lands with you. While you're at it pay a visit to my personal blog and website at Rx For The Soul where we explore this and other topics of human interest. Become A Fan and be notified when posts are updated.

And during the coming week a reminder from Pollyanna:

Don't worry, be happy, follow the yellow brick road, stay on the sunny side of the street, look for the silver lining, have a nice day, and "Yes You Can!"