THE BLOG
10/21/2013 09:39 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

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.