This morning’s Times carries an article about a new report which recommends doing “five simple things a day” - connecting with others, being active, being curious, learning, and giving - to enhance mental well-being. The paper’s commentary on the report includes the line: “They [the recommendations] might sound like pure Pollyanna, but they are based on evidence...”
The implication is that an accusation of Pollyannaism would be most unfair to the report and its authors. Perhaps it would; but it would also be unfair to Eleanor H. Porter’s literary heroine, whose name has unjustly become a byword for ridiculously sunny optimism in the face of the facts.
As I recall the story, Pollyanna’s point was not that we should pretend everything is fine even when it isn’t, nor that we should pretend everything can be made to be fine when it can’t. Rather, faced with a situation in which everything seemed to be negative, she would ‘play the Glad Game’.
The point of the Glad Game is that the player, no matter how negative the situation, should find something in that situation to be glad about. To play the game properly, then, actually requires the player to begin with a fairly objective, evidence-based outlook; if you’re not seeing things as they really are, then the thing you find to be glad about is likely not to be real either. And then you lose.
It’s been years since I read Pollyanna, so I’m quite prepared to be corrected on any of this by anyone who has a copy to hand, but to the best of my recollection the emotional turning point of the book came when Pollyanna was faced with a situation in which playing the Glad Game became impossible. She was injured so badly it was feared she would never walk again, and no matter how hard she tried she could find nothing in her situation about which to be glad. If she was the irritatingly unrealistic optimist she has latterly become in the public imagination, this is the point at which she would have been forcing a brave smile and saying, “Well, perhaps the doctors are wrong.” (And if she was the ‘living the dream’ type held up as an example by much of today’s media, she would probably have said, “I will walk again, for I am strong and independent and my life is what I choose to make it!”)
Instead, she almost gave up hope, and what saved her was the support of her community. Which she had earned with her, yes, relentlessly sunny optimism; but an optimism founded on teasing out some positive aspect, however tiny, from any situation - not on closing her eyes and pretending.