Being Positive vs. Being Pollyanna

By: Dani of Positively Present

“Just breathing isn’t living!”



Whether or not you’ve seen the films or read the book, you’re probably familiar with the concept behind the well-known little girl named Pollyanna. The character of Pollyanna possesses a life philosophy based on “The Glad Game,” a perpetual game played by young Pollyanna in which she searches for the good in every situation she encounters. Pollyanna’s optimistic look at life has been both acclaimed and criticized, but the film illustrates that her positive outlook had not only the power to transform her world, but also the power to transform the people around her and the entire town in which she lived.

Throughout the film, Pollyanna did her best to see not only the good in herself, but the good in others as well. To quote her, “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!” Most people reading that quote are either nodding in agreement or trying to avoid being sick from the excess of positivity. Interestingly, most people have a very positive or very negative reaction to the concept of optimism that is filtered through everything Pollyanna does or says — so much so that there’s even been a term created for the idea that is Pollyanna, known as the “Pollyanna Principle.”

According to Wikipedia, “The Pollyanna principle (also called Pollyannaism or positive bias) describes the tendency for people to agree with positive statements describing themselves. Research indicates that, at the unconscious level, our minds have a tendency to focus on the optimistic while, at the conscious level, we have a tendency to focus on the negative. This unconscious bias towards the positive is often described as the Pollyanna principle.” Not surprisingly, some view this principle as a negative thing, an overuse of positivity that doesn’t allow for reality to be truly examined. Others view this principle as foolproof words to live by, a foundation on which all words and actions can be built.

Personally, I believe there is a difference between what people perceive as Pollyannaism and what it really means to be positive. By definition, Pollyannaism implies that you ignore or avoid dealing with negative events, looking only for the good and denying the bad. However, this is not the foundation of positive thinking (despite what many might believe). Positive thinking, unlike Pollyannaism, acknowledges both negative and positive events and chooses to focus on the positive aspects rather than the negative ones. Positive thinking means dealing with a negative event, allowing the appropriate amount of time for negative emotions to surface, and then moving on from the negativity by focusing on the positive.

Though it’s been awhile since I’ve seen the film, I believe that Pollyanna was a positive thinker. She didn’t ignore the negative, but instead chose not to dwell on it. Considering her situation, I’m sure she was combating a great deal of negativity within herself, but she make the conscious choice to focus on what was good in her life. However, media and culture has taken Pollyanna’s positive thinking and turned it into a negative. It’s convinced us that Pollyanna naively saw the good in the world around her without acknowledging the bad.

Whether or not this is the case is mostly irrelevant considering Pollyanna is a fictional character. What is relevant is what people in real life do. Those who choose to take part in Pollyannaism, as it’s been named, will choose to ignore the negative and only focus on the positive. This can be extremely delusional and, in my opinion, is not at all the same as positive thinking. To live a truly positive life, one must consider both the negative and positive aspects of life and then choose to focus on the good.

In addition, in order to live a positive life, one must begin by looking for the good in things. While negative elements of life should not be ignored, it’s not helpful to seek them out either. In the film version of Pollyanna, Pollyanna wears on a chain a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “When you look for the bad in men, expecting to find it, you surely will.” I believe these words to be true. When you search for the negative things in people (and in life), you will find them. Conversely, when you search for the positive, what you find will be positive.

In my opinion, Pollyanna’s gotten a bad reputation for being overly optimistic and sickeningly positive, but I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate. The character of Pollyanna did not strive to ignore reality or avoid the truth of what was happening in her life. Instead, she chose to face the negative situations head-on and look for the good in them, as any positive thinking person would. She chooses the path in life that so few people walk down—a path on which positive thinking blooms and inspiration can be found in even the darkest of places.

 When looking for inspiration, we should not look to the formulaic version of Pollyanna that has been perpetuated by the media. We should not aspire to think that everything is happy and perfect and positive. Instead, we should look to the true heart of Pollyanna’s tale and aspire to be like the little girl who, while coping with the negative in her life, continued to strive diligently to see the good in all that was around her.

Dani, a twenty-something striving to live positively in the present moment, wrote this post. Dani’s blog, Positively Present, embraces the idea of “living happily ever after now” by focusing on all things positive. Dani is also the creator and author of Hope Springs Internal, a blog focusing on the positive representations of women in the media. You also find Dani on Twitter @positivepresent.

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