The bright side.

There are so many ways to look at life. Istiaque Ahmed Nahian takes on Pollyanna, a way to look at things positively in any situation. Nahian invites us to play the Glad Game for a change.


Today’s issue definitely calls for a prologue. Let us assume that Mr Happy is an aspiring writer and he contributes in a reputed daily. As a rookie, he could cover anything and everything his editor told him to. But one day he was assigned a topic so obvious that did not need to be blotted in the paper. To him it seemed that he had to report the rising of the sun. His writer’s sense gave him mixed signals. But after some time, all clouds were clear.  His laptop crashed in the middle of the article. The deadline was not met. Then Mr Happy thought that ‘At least I won’t have to write that anymore’. This type of way of thought, a sheer will to find silver lining even in the worst of scenarios, is known as Pollyanna.
The Pollyanna principle is the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones. It is simply to take the best out of any tricky situation. Research indicates that at the subconscious level, the mind has a tendency to focus on the optimistic experiences; while at the conscious level, it has a tendency to focus on the negative. This subconscious’ biasness towards the positive is often described as the Pollyanna principle.
The name derives from the novel Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H Porter describing a girl who plays the ‘glad game’— trying to find something to be glad about in every situation. The book turned out to be a famous children’s classic. The title character of the book has been regarded as the epitome of optimistic outlook by many. The book depicts the subconscious bias towards the positive.  The book was such a success that Porter soon produced a sequel, Pollyanna Grows Up (1915). Eleven more Pollyanna sequels, known as ‘Glad Books’, were later published, most of them written by Elizabeth Borton or Harriet Lummis Smith. Further sequels followed, including Colleen L Reece’s Pollyanna Plays the Game (1997).

In the book, the title character is Pollyanna Whittier, a young orphan who goes to live in the fictional town of Beldingsville, Vermont, with her wealthy but stern and cold spinster aunt Polly, who does not want to take in Pollyanna but feels it is her duty to her late sister. Pollyanna’s philosophy of life revolves around what she calls ‘The Glad Game’, an optimistic and positive attitude she learned from her father. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation, no matter how bleak it may be. It originated in an incident during one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna’s father taught her to look at the good side of things — in this case, to be glad about the crutches because she didn’t need to use them.

With this philosophy, and her own sunny personality and sincere, sympathetic soul, Pollyanna brings so much gladness to her aunt’s dispirited New England town that she transforms it into a pleasant place to live. The Glad Game shields her from her aunt’s stern attitude: when aunt Polly puts her in a stuffy attic room without carpets or pictures, she exults at the beautiful view from the high window; when she tries to ‘punish’ her niece for being late to dinner by sentencing her to a meal of bread and milk in the kitchen with the servant Nancy, Pollyanna thanks her rapturously because she likes bread and milk, and she likes Nancy.

Soon Pollyanna teaches some of Beldingsville’s most troubled inhabitants to ‘play the game’ as well, from a querulous invalid named Mrs Snow to a miserly bachelor, Mr Pendleton, who live all alone in a cluttered mansion. Aunt Polly, too — finding herself helpless before Pollyanna’s buoyant refusal to be downcast — gradually begins to thaw, although she resists the glad game longer than anyone else.

Eventually, however, even Pollyanna’s robust optimism is put to the test when she is struck by a car and loses the use of her legs. At first she doesn’t realise the seriousness of her situation, but her spirits plummet when she is told what happened to her. After that, she lies in bed, unable to find anything to be glad about. Then the townspeople begin calling at Aunt Polly’s house, eager to let Pollyanna know how much her encouragement has improved their lives; and Pollyanna decides she can still be glad that she at least has had her legs. The novel ends with Aunt Polly marrying her former lover Dr Chilton and Pollyanna being sent to a hospital where she learns to walk again and is able to appreciate the use of her legs far more as a result of being temporarily disabled and unable to walk well.
Pollyanna has been adapted for film several times. Some of the best known are Disney’s 1960 version starring child actress Hayley Mills, who won a special Oscar for the role, and the 1920 version starring Mary Pickford.
There are varying views about the Pollyanna principle. As a result of the novel’s success, the adjective ‘Pollyannaish’ and the noun ‘Pollyannaism’ became popular terms for a personality type characterised by irrepressible optimism evident in the face of even the most adverse or discouraging of circumstances. Some think of it as a form of denial. Others think of it as positive view towards life. Boucher and Osgood said that it was a universal tendency that people used positive words more than negative words in case of communication.

Researchers Margaret Matlin and David Stang provided substantial evidence of the Pollyanna Principle. They found that people expose themselves to positive stimuli and avoid negative stimuli, they take longer to recognise what is unpleasant or threatening than what is pleasant and safe, and they report that they encounter positive stimuli more frequently than they actually do.
Celebrated Bangladeshi writer also used this principal in his book ‘Himu Mama.’ The novel advances through a first person view of a child. The child keeps record of his bad and good deeds throughout the day and makes the best use of any tricky situation. Muhammed Zafar Iqbal in his novel, ‘Ami Tipu’ depicted a same kind of scenario when the protagonist of the novel was happy despite his mother’s death. But the most famous example of Pollyanna was before the origin of the term. It was through Aesop’s ‘grapes are sour’ story.
There is a difference between positive thinking and Pollyannaism. Positive thinkers do not dwell on the past for long. They contemplate about their previous mistakes and mishaps and eventually move on. But the Pollyannaists completely ignore the negatives. They tend to ignore the fundamental aspects of a situation which is harmful. Pollyannaism will eventually lead to complacency which is an impediment towards constructive thinking.
The ultimate purpose of life should be happiness and a slightly biased optimism helps in this case. Though Pollyanna as a way of thought is still in debate, it is obviously alluring. So why don’t we have fun for a change and play the GLAD GAME?


Istiaque Ahmed Nahian is a student of University of Dhaka.

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