Lifestyle

Pollyanna Was Not a Pollyanna  

The surprising wisdom of a long-misunderstood classic.

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Pollyanna gets a bad rap. Even Mary Pickford, the silent movie star who bought the rights to the 1913 bestseller about an uber-optimistic orphan, was said to detest the girl and story. That's according to John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister, whose new book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It (Penguin Press), highlights the million ways our brains—and the media—focus on the bad and discount the good.

And yet Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna was such a phenom that Pickford gritted her teeth, cast herself as the 11-year-old heroine (Pickford was 27), and earned herself both a defining role and a gross of over $1 million in 1920. That's a happy ending! When Hayley Mills played Pollyanna in the 1960 Disney remake, she and Walt also laughed all the way to the bank.

Pollyanna movies have been made around the globe, despite the fact that her name long ago became shorthand for gratingly grateful. What I would call the "At least Anne Frank got a book deal!" outlook Pollyanna calls the "Glad Game," a technique she was taught by her missionary dad when she was desperately hoping for a doll and received instead a pair of crutches. But at least she didn't need the crutches, so—hooray!

I recently decided it was time to finally watch (and possibly learn from) Pollyanna. Steeling myself for a sap overload, I was shocked to discover the character was not a cloying goody-goody but actually sly, smart—and manipulative.

The basic plot: Parentless Pollyanna arrives in a small Vermont town to live with her rich and icy Aunt Polly. Pollyanna doesn't mind the attic room—just look at that view!—and soon she's out and about, meeting the locals. She chats with shut-in Mrs. Snow, who's been poring over a casket catalog, and wealthy recluse Mr. Pendleton, who hates kids until Pollyanna pushes her way in and points out the rainbows his chandelier casts on the wall. Pretty soon they're stringing a clothesline of crystals across the living room and rainbows dance everywhere—a hobby she brings to Mrs. Snow's stuffy bedroom as well.

By doggedly refusing to treat these grumpy adults as anything other than fun-loving potential friends, they start to become exactly that. But how?

"Pollyanna is nice to the people you don't want to be around and therefore makes them nice," says Camilo Ortiz, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University. The sourpusses treated everyone as hateful. When along comes someone who doesn't hate them and isn't hateable, their circuits sputter. Either life is nasty, brutish, and short, or it isn't. Unable to hold two opposing viewpoints at once, they dump their old one (life stinks) and embrace the new.

"Believing in people is a way you can put some good in the world—people want to live up to those expectations," says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Press). Lukianoff's book looks at today's campus culture through the lens of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). While some colleges actively sensitize students to things like microaggressions—the idea that offhand or ignorant comments should be treated as if they were cruel and deliberate attacks—CBT teaches the opposite: Don't just trust your feelings; inspect them. Why are you interpreting an incident in the least charitable way? Might there be an alternative explanation?

That is just what Pollyanna is making the townsfolk do. They may feel angry and aggrieved, but is life really that bad? Or is it just their ornery, self-pitying interpretation?

Pollyanna brings CBT to the town. And lately, some parents are bringing Pollyanna's lesson into their homes. "I deliberately made my husband and daughter, who's 13, watch it with me," says author Alina Adams. "I was born in the Soviet Union and spent my first seven years there. Growing up, the attitude was 'it could always be worse.'" Her Soviet upbringing made American life one big Glad Game for Adams.

Chicago therapist Kelley Kitley says she wanted to instill that same outlook in her four kids ("You didn't make the team, but you made some new friends!") and found it rubbing off on her too, making her less critical and more happy.

Me? I'm a proud Pollyanna convert. You can play the sad game, the mad game, or the Glad Game. Only one is any fun.

NEXT: Brickbat: I Got a Line on You

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      How much is that in pails?

  2. Must really be a slow news day for this shit. Nothing must be happening. Not like there was a shooting in Louisville over the weekend or anythi- what’s that? The shooter was one of the protestors and not a white supremacist? Guess no one will talk about it ever then.

    1. Yes! That’s the spirit! It’s a slow news day – no troubles, no outrages, nothing to be sad or mad about, life is good, be happy! Soon enough, the news will be along to tell you how everything sucks and it’s all those peoples fault and you should get all worked up about some shit that’s the same as last week’s shit and the shit from the week before that as well.

      1. Look at the Pollyanna!

  3. OK Pollyanna, deal with this one: either Trump or Biden will get elected in November.

    I guess the glad game says “well, neither is Hillary”.

  4. Pollyanna WAS a Pollyanna.

    You’ve just discovered the point of the book and the movies.

    That you can make things positive by being positive.

    The morphing of the meaning of the movie into sappishness was done by the same type of folks who see 9 deaths as genocide and over 7000 deaths as none of your damned business.

    1. Dunno.

      Seems most improvement is at the behest of people who say “this is bullshit” and demand something better. Look at those sourpusses over there demanding to be free of the British. Is life in the colonies really so bad?

      Not to say there aren’t people who will find fault with an open bar and free porn, but they are just as much a curse as rampant Pollanna-ism.

      I believe the point is to try and examine things as objectively as possible (which means, yes, there’s an awful lot to like in this world amid the tears).

      1. What works on an individual level may not work with giant Empires.

      2. Casting a libertarian spoiler vote is demanding something better–and it works. At least it works when demanding something worse. When George Wallace supporters did it, they carried several states, permanently broke up the Solid South and moved the Klan back to the GOP. When People’s Party supporters did it, we got saddled with the Manifesto’s own graduated income tax. When Prohibition Party supporters did it, we got Prohibition, the Crash and The Great Depression.

    2. Well, you could similarly say that “Uncle Tom wasn’t an Uncle Tom”. In both cases, the meaning of the term has drifted so far from the original and into an insult that it no longer fits the title character.

    3. At least those genocide/none of your biz folks don’t control too many branches of the government (yet)!

  5. Why are you interpreting an incident in the least charitable way? Might there be an alternative explanation?

    A related outlook is to always assume there is a logical reason for everything; you just have to look for it. Among the easiest is finding a freeway putting along at the speed limit. It’s easy to assume it’s some damned speed nazis puttering along just for fun and to try to work through traffic past them; but usually it’s some damned cop playing the role of speed nazi, and he may just be looking for idiots like you, switching lanes like a dog hunting for fleas.

    Causes don’t have to be sane. But they are usually rational in the eye of their beholder.

    1. One time I was driving on the highway and slowly crept up on a red Ford Explorer that had too many antennae on the roof. So I paced it and waited for a left turn. Sure enough, there was a spotlight next to the mirror. So I just followed for a good fifteen minutes, until I saw the next group of cars in the mirror. As one passed me and then the Explorer the thing lit up like a blue Christmas tree from hell.

      Look for the spotlight. If you don’t see one, pass the fucker.

      1. Speed limit was 65, and he had the cruise control set to 72.

        1. One time I was driving on the highway and slowly crept up on a red Ford Explorer that had too many antennae on the roof. So I paced it and waited for a left turn. Sure enough, there was a spotlight next to the mirror. So I just followed for a good fifteen minutes, until I saw the next group of cars in the mirror. As one passed me and then the Explorer the thing lit up like a blue Christmas tree from hell.

          Look for the spotlight. If you don’t see one, pass the fucker. https://el7lwa.com

    2. “A related outlook is to always assume there is a logical reason for everything; you just have to look for it.”

      The problem with this is that you actually have to spend time looking for that logical reason. It’s so much easier to just label it all “systemic racism”, or “damn Commies”. Also, if it’s some big conspiracy, there’s nothing you can do about it, so you don’t have to waste the effort trying.

      1. Just wear your mask, ok?

  6. Hooray, “protesters”!
    Totes people we should listen to
    http://twitter.com/stillgray/status/1277460822797647872?s=19

  7. And Uncle Tom was no Uncle Tom.

    Mickey Mouse, however, is rather Mickey Mouse.

    1. And under the new regime, a raging, Communist Chinese apologist and a socialist.

  8. “Pollyanna is nice to the people you don’t want to be around and therefore makes them nice,” says Camilo Ortiz, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University. The sourpusses treated everyone as hateful. When along comes someone who doesn’t hate them and isn’t hateable, their circuits sputter. Either life is nasty, brutish, and short, or it isn’t. Unable to hold two opposing viewpoints at once, they dump their old one (life stinks) and embrace the new.”

    The counterargument to this is to be found in Kafka’s, “The Metamorphosis”, where making oneself so good-natured and self-sacrificing not only transforms you into a bug to be stepped on–and inspires everyone to treat you like a bug. That’s the same kind of visceral reaction most people (like Pickford, apparently) have to Pollyanna.

    Try to imagine Pollyanna, the story, not straining credibility even further if she were a boy, a man, or a grown woman. If the story of adult or male Pollyanna were inspiring in some way, it would be about someone being abused by everyone until finally learning to fight back–or it would be a comedy about a delusional sort like Don Quixote.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWxb35UphF8

    1. Except how about we leave the realm of fiction and look to real life? Emperor Norton was a man who lived in San Francisco. He has a mental break and declared himself emperor of America. The man was kind and benevolent, as befitted his imagined station. The people humored the man for years, giving him “taxes” to help him live (the signed “tax receipts” were considered souvenirs), and when he died, he was buried in state, with ten thousand attendees.

  9. No politician ever got elected or forced through some major policy law by telling people to look on the bright side.

    1. Yeah, just about every initiative ever boils down to casting some people as the problem and themselves as the solution.

      And they’re half right.

    2. Lenore is right as usual. I used to be upset at the GOP crushing our rights while the Dems did the same. Then I found a libertarian group on the UT campus and soon understood the law-changing clout of libertarian spoiler votes. Now I laugh all the way to the voting booth absolutely certain that my vote acted to repeal some cruel communo-fascist law. This is winning the election, every single time. The candidates often don’t even want the job. They volunteer to run because that’s the way to make the worst looter lose and make America free again.

    3. Hirohito did. That side was brighter than a thousand suns. The Soviet army just then also made an about-face based on that same telling…

  10. a hobby she brings to Mrs. Snow’s stuffy bedroom as well.

    Creepy.

  11. “I kept thinking to myself, “Why does the existential dilemma
    have to be so damn bleak?” Yes, we’re alone in the universe, yes, life is meaningless, death is inevitable. But is that necessarily so depressing?”

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