Let's Play the Glad Game
Have you ever heard someone referred to as a "Pollyanna?" It's intended to be an insult, by the way.
Pollyanna, the heroine of a 1913 children's book,* is determined to see the bright side. She always looks for the good in people and situations. Her cheerful outlook comes from a lifetime of playing the Glad Game with her father, who died before the book opens.
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But in popular culture, calling someone a Pollyanna is to say that person is idealistic and naïve, unable to deal with the "real world." The American Heritage dictionary defines "Pollyanna" as "a person regarded as being foolishly or blindly optimistic."
Some have described the Pollyanna outlook as "toxic positivity." They assert that positivity causes you to stifle and deny negative emotions, and keeps you from finding ways to deal with difficulties or solve problems. The belief is that eventually all of those repressed feelings are going to erupt into something horrible and damaging.
Others think that an upbeat attitude will make you easy prey for all of the bad people in the world.
This failure to cope would indeed be a problem. Continuing to deny evil, injustice, or suffering simply lets those things exist and thrive.
But the purpose of the Glad Game is to be able to acknowledge something negative and then think of a reason to be thankful in the midst of it. Pollyanna plays the Glad Game as a way of dealing with the real sorrows and hardships that, along with happiness and good circumstances, are a part of everyone's life. Her father, a widower, taught Pollyanna to take any difficulty or disappointment, large or small, and try to find a reason to be glad about it.
That isn't toxic. It's motivating.
A positive outlook empowers us.
Do bad things still happen to good people? Unfortunately, yes. Do some evil people seem to prosper? I'm sorry to say... yes.
Is depression real? Yes, and sometimes we need professional help to manage or overcome it. I know we can't simply jolly ourselves out of every bit of sadness and suffering we experience.
But often a negative attitude is simply a habit. Like Eeyore, A. A. Milne's character in Winnie-the-Pooh, we could regularly see the bad in every person and situation. We could live in expectation that things will never go well, that people will never behave well, and that we will always be mistreated or have a bad day. That makes us passive and powerless.
However, when we look for something positive about a given situation, we're likely to find something positive. By turning our energies toward finding something to be thankful for, we're able to focus on our blessings, rather than be defeated by our troubles. And the more determined we are to find a silver lining, the more likely we are to take positive action to create the good we're looking for.
Positivity takes practice.
I grew up with one parent who believed that "if something can go wrong, it definitely will." And I've found that it's really easy to surround myself with bad news (and to let it play over and over and over). It's really easy to complain, and to let all of my conversations with others consist of complaints. It's really easy to give in to self-pity. It takes effort to not only play the Glad Game, but to take action to solve a problem instead of simply complaining about it.
Is my life improved by my complaints? Is the world? No. The world definitely doesn't need more outrage.
I've lived through some pain, and while tears are sometimes unavoidable, and the need to talk about my hurt and fear with someone I love and trust is undeniable, continuing to grind and fret over the problem forever doesn't bring relief. It doesn't change anything.
In the book, and in the 1960 live-action Disney film, Pollyanna isn't always cheerful. She doesn't deny her negative emotions – she cries over disappointments. She expresses anger and frustration. She sympathizes with other people's troubles, and not only teaches them the Glad Game, but takes practical steps to help them. And when she suffers great misfortune later in the story, she initially refuses to play the Game. She needs the help of other people to do it.
It's not that perfect optimism comes naturally to Pollyanna. Instead, optimism is a skill that has become stronger with practice. It's a tool she uses to make herself and others happy.
If optimism is a skill, we can learn it.
Begin by looking for just one positive thing, and build from there. My gratitude journal helps me concentrate on what's beautiful about my life. It gives me a place to record those details and a way to relive them.
As Pollyanna herself puts it, "When you're hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind." Sure, we need to know the "other kind" exists. Then we can start, all of us, to look for the good, and act on it.
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.
Updated June 2023