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Think Positive, Be Happier: The Invaluable Lessons of 'Pollyanna'

There are plenty of good reasons why Dr. Daniel Amen encourages patients to read the classic children's book

posted by John Stark, July 20, 2012 More by this author

happy and sad masks

John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle.  Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.


happy and sad masks
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At my last job I had a wonderful perk: Free membership in an expensive, upscale health club and spa that was open 24 hours a day. When I left that job, I stopped going to the fitness center and joined a more downscale gym that stayed open only until 8 p.m. on weeknights and 4 p.m. on weekends.

But guess what? I’ve never been fitter.

Because the plush health club never closed, I rarely went. Every day I would tell myself, “I can get there later” — until later became too late, especially when I’d settled in for the evening. With the new gym, there’s no procrastinating. I have to get there at least an hour before the doors close. Going to the gym has now become a priority.
 
My new, no-frills gym has proved to be an invaluable gift. If I sound like a Pollyanna, so be it — I happen to be one of her biggest disciples. She was a positive thinker who was definitely ahead of her time.
 
I didn’t always feel this way. Like most people, I considered Pollyanna a pejorative word used to describe someone whose cheerfulness gets under your skin. Webster’s describes a Pollyanna as “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism.”

In other words, an unctuous bore.

Even the Gershwin brothers couldn’t resist taking aim at her in their cynical love song, “But Not for Me”:

Don’t want to hear from any cheerful Pollyannas
Who tell you fate supplies a mate
It’s all bananas.
 
Sorry, George and Ira, but Pollyanna isn’t all bananas. There are plenty of studies showing that being optimistic not only makes people happier, it makes them healthier. Optimism is one of the most common traits among long-lived people.
 
My Pollyanna conversion came just weeks after 9/11, when the world looked particularly bleak. I was doing an interview with Dr. Daniel G. Amen, the California neuropsychiatrist who wrote the bestselling Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Amen is known for looking on the bright side of life by getting rid of our ANTS — “automatic negative thoughts.”

“How,” I asked him, “can one live his or her life in a positive, upbeat manner without appearing Pollyannish?”
 
“What’s wrong with that?” he replied. “I tell all of my patients to read Pollyanna or rent the movie. It’s worth at least three visits to my office.”
 
Really? I was taken aback.

“It’s about a way to think,” he continued. “If we all thought that way, we’d be healthier as individuals and as a society.”

(More: What Happy Older Adults Have in Common)
 
You don’t take that kind of advice lightly, not from someone who has scanned tens of thousands of brains. So I decided to read Pollyanna, which was available over the shelf and without a prescription. I got a copy of the children’s classic at my local bookstore.

First published in 1913, the book has spawned 16 sequels — though only the first one is by Pollyanna's creator, Eleanor H. Porter, who died in 1920. The book has also been the inspiration for several American and British TV series and three movies, including a 1960 release starring Haley Mills and a 1913 silent version with Mary Pickford.
 
Pollyanna is the story of an orphaned 11-year-old girl who is sent to live with her unwelcoming spinster aunt in a Vermont town. Even in the worst of situations, Polyanna manages to find something to be grateful for, which affects everyone she meets.
 
In the first few chapters of the book, I saw what Amen was getting at: Pollyanna was a problem solver who thought outside the box. Shortly after arriving at her aunt’s house, she looks for someone to play “the glad game.” Taught to her by her missionary father, the game consists of finding something to be happy about in every situation. It originated one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll, got a pair of crutches by mistake. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna’s father told her to be glad about the crutches because “we didn’t need to use them!”
 
Pollyanna’s means of coping in her new environment is to invoke her late father’s philosophy. Credit him with giving her the recipe for making lemonade out of lemons.
 
When Aunt Polly puts her niece in a stuffy attic room instead of a bedroom, she exults at the view from the window. When Aunt Polly punishes Pollyanna for being late for dinner by sentencing her to eat bread and milk in the kitchen with Nancy, the servant, Pollyanna thanks her profusely. She tells her she likes bread and milk, and she likes Nancy.

Pollyanna isn’t selfish about sharing her positive-thinking survival strategy, and in time she teaches the townsfolk how to play the glad game.
 
When a gardener complains about being old and stooped, she tells him to consider himself lucky because he doesn’t have to bend so far to do the weeding. When a housemaid complains that she hates Monday mornings, Pollyanna tells her that’s when she should be the happiest: It’s an entire week before the next Monday.
 
Looking at Pollyanna with new eyes, I found the book to be prescient, pre-dating by decades Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. In Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, the protagonist says, “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gift.”

Uh, sound familiar? If Eleanor H. Porter had written Pollyanna today instead of 100 years ago, she, like Amen, would be producing and hosting her own self-help TV specials.
 
Ever since reading Pollyanna, I’ve been playing “the glad game.” It's a challenge —and fun — to find something positive in every negative situation.
 
When I got laid-off a few years ago, I realized that I’d been handed the gift of time. In order to get a better job when the economy improved, I went back to school for a master’s degree — but how do you do that without income?

It wasn’t easy, but I managed by taking in roommates. I also went to real-estate school and became a licensed agent, allowing me to work my own hours. Even if I was just scraping by, I was intensely busy, which kept my mind off my worries.

Being unemployed turned out to be a very productive and creative period of my life. Thank you, Wall Street!
 
From 1985 until 2000, I used to travel a lot for business. When I flew I always had enough miles to get upgraded to first-class. Nowadays, I have to squeeze into coach. But it’s OK — in fact, I prefer it. When I was in first-class it was too easy to sit back and let the fight attendant refill my bottomless wine glass. By the time the plane landed, I was often dehydrated, hung over and ready for bed. Now when I fly, I bring a book or a stack of magazines. I hunker down in my seat, thankful to have several hours of uninterrupted reading time. When I arrive, I’m fully awake and my brain is recharged.

I know, too, that as much as I'd like to retire, working hard at a job builds brain cells and keeps me young.
 
While I was interviewing Dr. Amen, the horrific events of the terror attacks were still unfolding. I told him I had a hard time seeing anything positive in the aftermath.

“Turn off the TV,” he advised.

I thought that sounded naïve — dare I say Pollyannaish? — until he elaborated. “The brain can’t tolerate those horrible images repeated over and over," he said. "You’ll be less depressed if you balance out the horror by focusing on the amazing, wonderful stories of heroism that come out of this.”
 
I think that’s exactly the advice Pollyanna would have given her neighbors. The glad game isn’t about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s about seeing the world as it really is.

“The fact is,” Dr. Amen told me, “there are a lot of awful things in the world, and there are a lot of amazingly wonderful things in the world. It depends on what you choose to focus on.” 
 
If that’s the case, then call me Polly.
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