The Real Story of Pollyanna and Her Secret Happiness Game

Research shows the lessons of fiction can sometimes be true.

Posted Jun 30, 2019

 Bigstock, used with permission
Source: Bigstock, used with permission

Pollyanna is probably the most misunderstood fictional character of 20th century American literature. When most people think of Pollyanna, they think of an overly optimistic goody-goody who doesn’t see the harsh reality of the world. The term Pollyanna has taken on quite a negative connotation, and you frequently hear people using the term apologetically—I hate to be a Pollyanna, or critically—Stop being such a Pollyanna. In fact, Pollyanna was not unrealistic or overly optimistic about anything. She was a little girl with a very poor but very wise father who recognized the duality of everything in life and taught her to play a game based on this idea.

Pollyanna’s game was known as the “glad game.” One day Pollyanna’s father who was a church missionary supported by donations from the Ladies’ Aid Society, received a long-awaited donation box for his family. Pollyanna, who had very few toys, had been wishing with all her might for a doll, but the only thing for her to play with was a broken pair of crutches. When Pollyanna started to cry, her father promised her that if she stopped crying he would teach her to play a game that would bring her more happiness than any doll ever could. He taught her that in every situation, no matter how bad it might seem, you could always find something to be glad about if you looked hard enough. Pollyanna and her father played that game every day, looking as hard as they could to find the thing they could be glad about in every situation. The more difficult the situation, the more fun and challenging it was for them.1

After a while, the game became automatic to Pollyanna. She often didn’t even realize she was playing it. She had just trained herself to see the silver lining, or what she could be grateful for, in every situation. Pollyanna began to teach the game to everyone she met, and life-altering transformations started to occur for all who played. 

While the story of Pollyanna was originally published in 1913, by Eleanor Porter, it wasn’t until almost 100 years later when the field of positive psychology began to seriously study gratitude on the effects of emotional well-being. Since then a large body of research has come together showing that those who engage in the regular exercise of gratitude experience a multitude of benefits including improved sleep, greater happiness and less depression, better social relationships, and greater overall life satisfaction.One study showed that the effect of gratitude was above and beyond what psychotherapy alone accomplished and that those who received psychotherapy and engaged in daily gratitude writing reported better mental health 12 week after the intervention than those who engaged in only psychotherapy.3

Gratitude may also be beneficial to people with medical illnesses. One study found that cardiac patients who practiced being grateful reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation.4 Another study found that heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks had less inflammation afterward .5

Scientists who have looked at the neural correlates of gratitude in the brain have shown that the practice of gratitude appears to activate brain regions often associated with areas that generate a feeling of reward.  Very importantly, this response can be strengthened by engaging in activities such as gratitude journaling, which basically means practicing gratitude can change your brain and allow you to experience the world in a more rewarding way.6

So, if you are looking to experience more positive emotion and well-being in your life start playing Pollyanna’s game. See if you can find something to be glad about and grateful for in every situation, no matter how bad things seem, and if someone dares to call you a Pollyanna, smile and say thank you. 

To learn more about gratitude research, click here.

References

1.    Porter, Eleanor, H. (1990). Pollyanna. Puffin Classics. London.

2.    John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (2018). The Science of Gratitude. Greater Good Science Center. https://thesnipermind.com/images/Studies-PDF-Format/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf

3.    Wong, Y Joel and Owen, Jesse and Gabana, Nicole T and Brown, Joshua W and McInnis, Sydney and Toth, Paul and Gilman, Lyn. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28 (2), 192-202.

4.    Mills, P. J., Redwine, L. S., Wilson, K., Pung, M. A., Chinh, K., Greenberg, B. H., Chopra, D. (2015). The role of gratitude in spiritual well-being in asymptomatic heart failure patients. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 2(1), 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1037/scp0000050 

5.    Redwine, L. S., Henry, B. L., Pung, M. A., Wilson, K., Chinh, K., Knight, B., Mills, P. J. (2016). Pilot Random- ized Study of a Gratitude Journaling Intervention on Heart Rate Variability and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients With Stage B Heart Failure. Psychosomatic Medicine, 78(6), 667–676. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000316 

6.    Karns, C. M., Moore, W. E. I., & Mayr, U. (2017). The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11(December), 599. https://doi. org/10.3389/FNHUM.2017.00599