Pollyanna in the modern world

Published 3:45 pm Friday, October 11, 2019


Guest columnist

The Pollyanna character was created by Eleanor Hodgeman Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was an orphaned girl who was sent to live with her stern and reluctant aunt in a small town in Vermont. Despite her obviously unfortunate life to date, being orphaned and alone at the tender age of eleven, Pollyanna demonstrated a determinedly positive outlook on the world around her in all situations.  

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Of course, over time, Pollyanna turned the town and its quirky residents around to her optimistic philosophical point of view. Eventually, the story became a Disney movie. It was at that point that, through the wide distribution of the film, the term “a Pollyanna” became used to describe a person who seemed to be overly cheerful. To be labeled a Pollyanna was often quite unflattering.

OK, it’s possible Pollyanna could get on your nerves.  She was played by a popular child actress Hayley Mills in the 1960 film. Mills was a likely casting with her innocent, wide eyes, blond ringlets and quick smile. Aunt Polly attempted to mold Pollyanna’s appearance and behavior appropriate in the early 1900s and in a prim small town. Soon, Pollyanna set about living her life on her own terms. Nothing and no one dissuaded her happy disposition for very long.

Throughout history, often at times of great social stress, there is such a character which attracts attention. Between 1932 and 1945, Shirley Temple appeared in 38 films, virtually all of which portrayed the adorable child actress in a storyline which boiled down to a child facing a loss or hard patch in life, an unlikely yet kind adult figure entering her life to provide opportunity and safety, and the world is right again. Throughout it all, the youngster exhibits a determined optimism that her world will, in fact, turn out fine and there is good in it.  

No doubt, the first half of the 20th Century was a tough period in the world; unrest in Russia, border and political disputes in Europe, European colonization in Africa and Asia, for example. Travel was easier and contributed to exposure to other cultures and economic opportunities among a portion of the population. Newspapers were widely available. Radio was new and increasingly popular beginning in the late 1920s, making it possible to know almost instantaneously when world shattering events took place.

Is it no wonder people looked for and craved stories promising happy outcomes?  Research indicates that people tend to remember pleasant times more accurately than unpleasant times.  This is called the Pollyanna principle.

According to an article, on a conscious level, most people have a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of life. However, subconsciously, our minds focus optimistically.  It would appear we want to be happy even in the face of tough times. We are drawn to the positive, i.e. Pollyanna and Shirley Temple stories. They make us smile.

I should have quit reading while I was ahead. Don’t worry; be happy, all will be well. However, I went scrolling along. The argument is this: We want to be happy, but we let others define happiness, or our unhappiness. A theory is that we have been conditioned to believe some ways to be happy are more acceptable than others and therefore more desirable.  

Growing up, we are encouraged to view the future as a wide open space in which we will do work that will serve the world; become a nurse, a firefighter, a police person, become a doctor and discover the cure for cancer, maybe become a teacher.  Certainly, all these and others are useful and valuable occupations. Done well and honestly, they are necessary to the stability of our communities. 

There are many satisfying professions out there which provide great service for the community.  But we define happiness based on a set of beliefs which do not encompass the world. We are conditioned to consider some places in life as less satisfying than others.  

The article cited some examples to support the claim. Working in a hospital is good. It is providing for the health of the citizens, taking care of those who have needs, etc.       

But, it is also good to finish a shift at the local convenience store or a home improvement store.  At the end of the day, you took care of the needs of shoppers who were in a hurry and couldn’t find the school supplies for the next day or the right nails for a project. You were helpful to the elderly shopper who couldn’t put the debit card in the right way.       

We are happy when we see ourselves that way, not when someone else judges us to be so.  We just need a reminder now and then. A little Pollyanna and Shirley Temple attitude never hurt anyone, no matter where you are and what may be going on out there.