Optimistic Doesn’t Mean Unrealistic: Defending Pollyanna

“When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.”
Pollyanna, 1960

Perhaps the opposite is also true. When you look for the good, not just in mankind but in all aspects of the world, you will find it. Maybe the message is simple idealistic drivel. But maybe it’s not.

If you haven’t seen Disney’s 1960 film “Pollyanna,” watch it. It’s a feel-good film (originally a book) I loved as a kid and recently watched again when I was feeling a bit drab and needed a boost of happy sustenance. The premise: a young girl recently orphaned comes to stay with her estranged aunt. Her optimism and positive outlook about all things in life rub off on the town’s inhabitants and change the community for the better.

The story of Pollyanna speaks to the cynicism and disillusionment that slowly seeps into our lives throughout adulthood.   Pollyanna experiences hardship but chooses not to dwell on it. She is young and initially seems naive, but she proves to be wiser than her years and ultimately serves as a reminder to the adults around her of a more hopeful and positive perception of life. She is a reminder to us as well.

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Struggle happens. Bad things happen. The doldrums and frustrations of daily life happen. When they do, we have a choice. We can choose to sulk and sink or we can choose to survive and maybe even thrive.

Pollyanna chooses to focus on the good things in life. The film is a positive reminder to me to look for the good. I feel lighter after I watch it, which is why I was surprised to learn that the term “Pollyanna” has gotten a bad rap in some circles. What was I missing?

Various dictionary definitions of Pollyanna include someone with “irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything,” someone who is “excessively or blindly optimistic,” and also “unreasonably or illogically optimistic.”

Since when can someone be TOO optimistic? How can optimism be illogical? This is actually a thing?

Okay, so I admit that sometimes an optimistic person can be annoying in the wrong moment. Sometimes when things are hard, the “bright side” seems ludicrous.

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But the concept of the Pollyanna character is not one of annoyance and illogic. In addition to the misguided definitions above, there are a couple of psychological premises that are responsible for Pollyanna’s tainted reputation. Here is a little more insight.

The Pollyanna Principle is “the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones.” (Wikipedia) It also refers to the tendency we have to remember negative experiences less negatively as time passes. So, we have selective memories and wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to the past.

When I think of Pollyanna however, I’m thinking of the present moment. What are the good things in front of me right now?

Then there is the concept of unrealistic optimism, also known as the Pollyanna Syndrome, in which people believe that negative events are less likely to happen to them than to other people. You are immune to bad luck, maybe a little invincible.

Sometimes people see what they want to see. They avoid the truth of the situation because it serves as an excuse for their behavior and/or shields them from facing a harsh reality. This is denial. This is you not being honest with yourself.

But this is not what I think about when I think of Pollyanna. Pollyanna was realistic. She paid attention to the world around her and never believed she was immune to bad things happening to her. Bad things did happen to her! (Watch the movie.) She was just trying to live her life in the best way she knew, the same as the rest of us.

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I prefer the Urban Dictionary definition of Pollyanna: “An internal optimist in the face of adversity (reality).” Nailed it!

Being optimistic is not the same as being unrealistic. On the flip side, being pessimistic does not equate to being realistic. Looking for the good doesn’t mean ignoring the bad. It is a way of interpreting the world, of dealing with the challenges life presents to you. We may need some time to mentally and emotionally come to terms with the surmounting obstacle in our lives. In those moments and in so many other moments in our lives, we have to look to ourselves for the good, to find strength and faith in ourselves.

Pollyanna represents a perception, a way of thinking, and a choice that we all make every day to look for the good or to focus on the bad. Bad situations happen; the key is to not let them take you down for the count. You look for something else to hold on to and keep you afloat, to make your world less dark and dreary from day to day.

Be present in the world around you. Find comfort in the fact that not everything is bad and falling apart. There is always something good to see and/or feel. I know this is easier said than done. It takes lifelong practice. But why would you want to be any other way?

Look for the good and you will surely find it.

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