It’s difficult knowing how to respond to these trying times. We feel better focusing on the positive, but we also want to remain aware and maintain realistic expectations. This is why Pollyannaism is a great mindset.
What is Pollyannaism?
Three similar terms confuse our concept of Pollyannaism:
What makes these terms confusing is that writers use them interchangeably. Since what we do is more important than what we call them, I’ll explain the concepts so you can choose the best mindset for you.
But first, a quote and a story!
“Whenever God wants to give us a gift, he wraps it up in a problem.”
– Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
A Gift Wrapped in a Problem
On a recent podcast episode, my blog mentor Brandon Gaille recounted this story about taking his family to Disney World.
Brandon has endured health issues for several years. His health challenges resurfaced not long before their Disney vacation last summer. As a result, Brandon had to rent a scooter to get around the parks instead of walking.
As if that wasn’t discouraging enough, as happens nearly every day in central Florida, a rainstorm popped up. The Gailles decided to have lunch so they could take shelter under the tables with umbrellas. Because of his scooter, Brandon couldn’t join his family at the table. Instead, he had to position his scooter behind one of his sons. That also seemed discouraging. At first.
His son began choking on a hot dog. Because Brandon was in his scooter behind his son, he was in an ideal position to immediately employ the Heimlich maneuver and save his son’s life!
Brandon recounted how he was thankful to God that he had the health problems because as uncomfortable and inconvenient as they were, the negative experience led up to his being in the right place a the right time to save his son.
Is his outlook an example of Pollyannaism?
What is the Definition of Pollyannaism?
Pollyannaism, also called the Pollyanna Principle, is named for the character Pollyanna featured a 1913 Eleanor H. Porter novel by that name. Pollyanna plays a game her father taught her, the “just being glad game.” To play this game, you look for something to be glad about in every situation, especially in unpleasant situations.
The game started when Pollyanna, hoping to receive a doll in a donation box from a church, instead gets a pair of crutches. Sending crutches instead of a toy seems like a common mistake. It could happen to any of us. Either that or foreshadowing.
[queue menacing organ music]
How to Play the “Just Being Glad” Game
To help Pollyanna feel less disappointed about receiving crutches instead of a doll, her father introduces the “just being Glad Game” to her by suggesting that she could be glad that she doesn’t need the crutches. Pollyanna considers her father’s suggestion and learns to love the Glad Game herself.
After her father’s untimely passing, Pollyanna moves east to live with her stodgy aunt Polly. She wanders her new home’s town, befriending the grumpy, old townsfolk and teaching the game to almost everyone she meets.
“You see, when you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.”
– Eleanor H. Porter
How Does the Dictionary Define Pollyannaism?
Merriam-Webster defines Pollyannaism as an “overly optimistic and benevolently cheerful state of mind.” According to psychologists, Margaret, W. Matlin and David J. Stang, pollyannaism “is the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones.” 
Dictionary.com defines Pollyanna as “an excessively or blindly optimistic person.” I believe that definition is from a European Psychiatry abstract. 
The various definitions used to make this a tough concept to name. It is confusing. I had stop and rewrite as I discovered how much confusion there is on this topic. However, what we call it isn’t as important as what we do every day.
A PositivePsychology.com article calls Pollyannaism as a “Positivity Bias.” 
What is a Positivity Bias?
We tend to assume the negative when we see the word bias so that a positivity bias may seem like an oxymoron. It is counterintuitive, but it isn’t an oxymoron. A bias towards anything is ordinarily negative, but what about a bias towards positivity?
Positivity bias is a bias towards positive, away from negative.
According to abstract , people with a positivity bias, “process pleasant information more accurately and efficiently than less pleasant information.”
People with a positivity bias are more likely to remember positive events and emotions than negative ones. They’ll more likely expect positive results than negative and notice positive information more than negative information.
One study researched several forms of media in ten languages and determined that humans are naturally positive. 
It makes sense. Watching a report with bad news makes us feel scared, sad, or worried. We’d prefer to focus on what makes us feel good. Even when reading a sad book or a scary movie, we hope for a happy, triumphant, “feel good” ending.
Research suggests that focusing on the positive is more productive and leads to happiness. We’ve got a growing movement in psychology called Positive Psychology. There’s even a web site name after it!
Can We Benefit from a Positivity Bias?
As long as we’re aware of the negative, a positivity bias can benefit us. While a positive focus makes us feel better in the present, recognizing and helping solve a problem or injustice can make more people happier in the long-term.
Mindfulness is key. Just as mindfulness practitioners remind us to maintain mindfulness to ensure our thoughts don’t dwell on the negative, we can also remain mindful that we don’t ignore issues that we need attention.
Then, it’s vital to take the necessary action to remedy the problem to earn the feeling of accomplishment and enjoy a better reality.
I believe that those who view positivity negatively will use words like syndrome and bias to describe Pollyannaism. Those who view positivity positively will use words like principle. Again, what we decide to call it is less important than our attitude and even less significant than what we do every day.
Pollyanna Syndrome vs. Pollyannaism
In contrast with Pollyannaism, or the Pollyanna Principle, is Pollyanna Syndrome. The names are quite similar, but the distinction is dramatic. To maintain the difference, I describe Pollyanna Syndrome in another post.
One book suggests that Pollyanna Syndrome is “a genetic predisposition to be happy.” 
My understanding is that Pollyanna Syndrome is “excessively or blindly optimistic,” and I cover that in Pollyanna Syndrome. That also means that dictionary.com should update their entry.
To distinguish between the two, think of it this way:
Syndrome = Bad
Read here: why to avoid Pollyanna Syndrome
This post is about Pollyannaism or The Pollyanna Principle.
3 Ways Pollyannaism is the Best Mindset
- Pollyannism adds realism to optimism
- Pollyannism is consistent with Christianity
- Pollyannaism boosts creativity
Pollyannism adds realism to optimism
How Pollyannaism Differs from Optimism
Pollyannaism sounds a lot like optimism. It’s really a matter nomenclature (a fancy word meaning, “what do you want to call it?”).
As Matlin and Stang suggest, Pollyannaism is completely ignoring the negative. I don’t think it ignores the negative. In Porter’s novel, The Glad Game’s objective was not to ignore the unpleasant situation or pretend it wasn’t happening.
The Glad Game’s purpose was to find something in every situation to be glad about.
Optimism is the belief that things will turn out fine. Optimism originates with faith, and it’s reinforced by action. If you get in the habit of taking quick and decisive action and fixing fixable situations, you gain more self-confidence that you can handle harsh conditions.
It’s healthy to realize there is negativity and be positive we can deal with it.
Have you noticed a trend lately of people lacking the capacity or will to endure negativity? They don’t ignore it. They hide from it. Many seek, if not demand, protection from it. That is a path to misery.
Ignoring and avoiding the negative only makes it worse.
Pollyanna Gets a Bad Rap
Living life like Porter’s character can be beneficial. Pollyanna doesn’t ignore the negative. Conversely, she acknowledges the negative and searches for the positive in it. She finds the diamond in the coal and the pearl in the oyster.
I think Pollyanna gets a bad rap. She enjoyed the benefits of her Dad’s game and taught it to others. The game follows Monty Python’s and Norman Vincent Peale’s advice.
“Always look on the bright side of life.”
– Eric Idle
I would like for those who use Pollyanna in a derogatory manner to read (or reread) the novel. We have better word choices to describe, and more importantly, to help those who ignore negativity completely or those with Pollyanna Syndrome.
Pollyanna Was Not a Pollyanna
We’ve taken Pollyanna’s outlook and The Glad Game and twisted them into ignoring anything challenging or negative. We assign this name, Pollyanna, to someone who completely ignores the negative in favor of the positive.
The novel’s character heeded Norman Vincent Peele’s advice. When presented with a problem, she practiced unwrapping it to look for the gift inside. As I stated above, the Glad Game’s object was not to ignore the negativity. Instead, it was to find something to be glad about in the situation.
Want more proof? 3 Reasons Pollyanna wasn’t a Pollyanna.
Pollyannaism and Religion
Eleanor Porter was unmistakably a religious person. The novel is full of references to scripture and faith. Pollyanna mentions several times that her mother went to Heaven to be with the angels. Being a Christian myself, I’ve often seen worry considered a sin, that it’s “assuming your problems are bigger than God.” There is no doubt that Porter used her novel to celebrate and share her religion.
Is There a Plan to be Glad About?
My mentor Brandon Gaille is also a devout Christian. Just as he viewed his ailments as a small part of a bigger plan, most Christians tend to interpret both pleasant and unpleasant events as parts of God’s plans. It makes sense that suffering or disappointment’s having a purpose make it feel better than if they are merely random events, or worse, punishment. Although I don’t view God as punitive, I’ve often seen my fellow Christians describe unpleasant events as punishment from God.
I should mention that I’ve never heard Brandon Gaille speak that way. He always uses his references to his faith to encourage his students to work hard and exemplify God’s love.
I think it’s worth considering whether the negative opinions of Pollyannaism might be influenced by a growing bias against religion, Christianity in particular. I’m not suggesting that this influence is correct or incorrect, or that the bias is founded or unfounded.
I feel that we should consider how they view religion and appreciate the language used to describe Pollyannaism so that each of us can form beliefs that help us act in ways that best benefit us.
Pollyanna Played the Game for Others’ Benefit
Pollyanna’s habits benefited the entire town, as well as herself. That might also weigh into your consideration.
In researching Pollyannaism, a point of the novel that I didn’t see mentioned by many of its critics is that all the gladness Pollyanna shares amongst the town eventually returns to her when she needs it.
Pollyannaism is an Exercise in Creativity
What Can We Possibly be Glad About?
I get it. Many situations are bad enough that it seems like nothing could possibly be useful in it. It feels like looking for something good in those awful situations is not realistic. Finding something good in those situations requires enormous creativity.
Not only do you have to be creative, but you also have to take yourself out of the negative mindset while remaining present in the terrible reality. That requires tremendous focus and creativity, but you and everyone involved stand to benefit from your efforts. Even if you can’t come up with anything, the initiative will be a significant practice in creativity.
Let’s play the game a little. It would, of course, be better to apply the game to individual situations, but here are a few:
- A lesson to learn from the situation
- An unexpected or less-obvious benefit
- A great story (We’ll look on this later and laugh!
- An opportunity to build strength, resilience or perseverance
Perhaps the realization that life isn’t always pleasant, that things frequently don’t go the way we want.
Pollyanna Was Like Meatloaf
Not the dish that disgusted so many of us as children but grew to love as adults. I’m talking about the band Meatloaf.
“I know you’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks,
But there ain’t no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.”
– Jim Steinman
Pollyanna wasn’t expecting prizes or riches. She was looking for strength, growth, and resilience. She sought out the benefits that challenging situations can eventually lead too.
I think considering Pollyannaism as a positivity bias is inaccurate.
Have you ever been called a Pollyanna? Did you take it as an insult or a compliment? Read to see why Pollyanna is defined do harshly.
Why Pollyanna Syndrome is toxic!
What do you have to be glad about?
 Matlin, M.W; Stang, D.J (1978). The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in Language, Memory, and Thought.
 Sirgy, M. Joseph. The Psychology of Quality of Life. Springer Science & Business Media, 2002
PORTER, ELEANOR H. POLLYANNA. STERLING PUB CO, 2013.