How We All Became Pollyannas (and Why We Should Be Glad About It)

A century after the publication of Pollyanna, the novel offers a handy mascot for the modern happiness obsession.

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"Every now and then a large number of widely separated individuals will pick out some book to like, some simple little book that comes without much heralding, without the protection of a well-known author's name," the editor and translator Grace Isabel Colbron wrote in 1915 in the literary journal The Bookman. "They take that simple little book to their hearts just because they like it, not because it happens to be the fashion to read it, or because one can be thought a 'highbrow' by talking about it."

That "simple little book" was Pollyanna, which marks its centennial this month to remarkably little fanfare, considering the enduring name recognition of its heroine. The novel became a bestseller immediately, with new printings ordered at least monthly for a year. It spawned 12 sequels, a Broadway production starring Helen Hayes, and a popular board game. Mary Pickford paid $115,000 to produce and star in a 1920 silent version of the story, and Hayley Mills won a special Academy Award for her portrayal in the 1960 Disney version.

What was all the fuss about? The book opens with poor, orphaned Pollyanna Whittier arriving in a small Vermont town to live with her wealthy Aunt Polly, "forty now, and quite alone in the world." Young Pollyanna has been taught by her father how to play "the glad game," in which the goal is to "find something about everything to be glad about," whether it's a disappointing Christmas gift or life-long illness. Pollyanna uses the game to spread good cheer among townspeople including a self-pitying invalid, a grouchy old miser, a poor orphan, a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and more. Some things haven't changed in 100 years: If a rich single woman appears in a story, you can be sure she has some lessons to learn. Sure enough, Aunt Polly, who sniffs on page two that her sister "was silly enough to marry and bring unnecessary children into a world that was already quite full enough," closes the novel by opening her heart to love and "gladness." The End.

It's a charming story, and Pollyanna is a charming character, one of the most likable of a slew of similarly cheerful, pious, and—oh, let's just say it—goody two-shoes girls that populated novels throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Think of sickly, saintly Beth March in "Little Women," or impossibly optimistic Rebeccaof Sunnybrook Farm. The insufferable Elsie Dinsmore, who first appeared in 1867, follows the Ten Commandments so rigidly she refuses to sing for her father on Sunday. ("Dear papa, I cannot sing it to-day. I cannot break the Sabbath.") To be a good young girl in much of the sentimental, quasi-Christian literature of the day was to be a bit of a pill.

On the surface, Pollyanna carries more than a whiff of this drippiness. When she gasps in rapture upon being sent to her room to read a pamphlet about houseflies and hygiene, it's impossible not to roll your eyes. As Colbron wrote in 1915, the reader "will be better off than some of those other characters in the book who had to live with Pollyanna" because "he can shut her up and lay her away on the shelf when her strenuous 'gladness' becomes too annoying."

So it's easy to see how the name Pollyanna quickly became shorthand for a kind of blind optimism, what one early theater reviewer called "this suffocating gospel of the grin." In the 1970s, psychological researchers proposed "the Pollyanna Principle" to explain how people search for and recognize the good—smells, words, memories—before the bad, no matter the circumstances. The American Heritage Dictionary now defines "pollyanna" as "a person regarded as being foolishly or blindly optimistic." Thus you find Senator John McCain dismissing his hopes for a Senate vote on immigration reform a few weeks ago as "Pollyanna-ish," or a scene in Showgirls where a comically cruel director tells Nomi Malone, "You look like Pollyanna." To be called a "Pollyanna" has never been a compliment.

Author Eleanor H. Porter, who died in 1920, battled Pollyanna's unsophisticated reputation in her time. "You know I have been made to suffer from the Pollyanna books. I have been placed often in a false light. People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was 'glad' at everything," she said in one interview. "I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought that it is far better to 'greet the unknown with a cheer.'"

Porter was right to defend her heroine. In fact, Pollyanna's "glad game" is a perfectly sensible technique for finding happiness, a pursuit that has turned into a bona fide obsession in mainstream culture, academia, and policy circles over the last decade or so. There's "The Happiness Project," "The Science of Happiness" and "Stumbling on Happiness," bestsellers all. There's Jeffrey Sachs's "World Happiness Report" and Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman's widely covered research on decision-making and happiness. (Economists, especially, have gone giddy for happiness research.) There's British Prime Minister David Cameron's national happiness index, a movement to measure the national mood that's gaining steam in the US, too. There are cover stories in Time and, yes, The Atlantic.

We're living in a moment of total happiness obsession, in other words, and Pollyanna is our perfect mascot. Her "glad game" goes beyond simple positive thinking. Pollyanna isn't always cheerful; she cries over disappointments large and small, and initially refuses to play the game when she suffers a major tragedy. It's not that she's naturally the world's greatest optimist; rather, optimism is a tool she uses to make herself happy. Her gladness is Gladwellian: It's not a state of mind, but rather a skill that becomes stronger with practice. As the freckled little guru herself put it, "When you're hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind." Welcome to the 21st century, Pollyanna. You'll fit right in.