Reclaiming Pollyanna: Lessons in Mindfulness

Smiling woman sitting near abandoned buildingOften, in the context of cultivating mindfulness, I hear people emphasize, “I don’t want to become a Pollyanna.” As someone who grew up loving Pollyanna, the child heroine of American novelist Eleanor Hodgman Porter, I want to clear her name. There is a lot to learn from the character of Pollyanna in our efforts to be mindful.

The term “Pollyanna” is typically used to describe a person who is unreasonably, excessively, or illogically optimistic. If you read the book, though, you’ll find that Pollyanna developed a character, behaviors, and an approach to life that touches on many of the qualities that we hope to develop as mindful people, and that, as therapists, we want to help our clients to own.

So what can we learn from Pollyanna that supports being mindful?

Commitment and persistence: Developing mindfulness requires commitment. It is important to practice, and it is important to remember to apply the approach when needed. Pollyanna shows commitment to play “the game of gladness” even in the most desperate times: when she loses her father, when the people she trusts send her away, and when her aunt is harsh with her. She is not illogically optimistic. She has her moments of crying and being sad, but she is determined to find what can help her to avoid slipping into despair and depression. She constantly directs her intention to finding something good and invests thoughts and efforts to find it.

When we work with ourselves or with others to cultivate mindfulness, it is important to be persistent and committed to the process. In the eightfold path, the Buddha talks about “right effort” and “right intention,” referring to the commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement, and the mental energy we apply to prevent unwholesome states and preserve wholesome ones.

Freedom to choose: When I guide people in mindful meditation, I like to mention that the moment they observe thoughts—the moment of awareness of thinking—is a moment of choice. One can choose to shift awareness, usually to the breath, or continue to fuel the thoughts, to be carried by them and believe in their message.

Pollyanna chose to control her mind and reactions, and we can choose that as well. We have a choice when we recognize patterns of negative thinking and decide not to spin into them. There is always more than one way to look at reality: why not choose the one that is more positive? It is not about denying inconvenient reality; we always look at reality through filters. Buddhist psychology emphasizes the importance of the observer in both sense-perception and perception of external events. Cultivating mindfulness cultivates the inner observer and enables one to choose the right filter for perceiving the world.

Pollyanna chose her filter of looking at the world through the “gladness game.” By refining her filter, she learned to orient herself and see beauty around her. In a grey and dark room she sees a glass catching the sunlight and creating a rainbow, and she enjoys it fully. Like Pollyanna, clients can be encouraged to look at the rainbow in their lives—the blessings, strengths, and beauty within and around them—in order to get a more holistic view of their situations.

Positive approach: When one comprehends that there is a choice, one can choose to acknowledge virtues and strengths. Evolution taught us to be aware of the negative. Those who predicted disasters and were cautious, protective, and prepared for the worst survived. It takes, therefore, the above-mentioned efforts to develop a positive approach. Pollyanna became a master of seeking and seeing the good. She trusts people, can see their positive qualities, and can connect to them through those qualities. In other words, we could say she sees the Buddha nature in everyone. Through her eyes, people learn to see the good in themselves as well.

In therapy and our journey in life, practicing the ability to see the positive helps create better functioning and mental health.

Compassion and acceptance: Cultivating compassion and acceptance is a predisposition requirement for developing mindfulness. In the Buddhist tradition, it is done by practicing the “loving-kindness” meditation, Metta. Pollyanna, who talks to everyone and treats each person equally, can teach us a lot about the nonjudgmental approach and compassion.

Curiosity: Pollyanna talks to everyone because she is curious. She is curious about the town she lives in and explores it, meeting people on the way. She shows real interest in people, their life, and their struggles.

Curiosity is in the heart of mindfulness. When we bring curiosity to our experiences, we shift from experiences possessing us to holding the experience and exploring it. Curiosity takes the edge off suffering and turns it to an experience worth living.

Creativity: The real charm of Pollyanna is in her creativity. With her commitment to finding the good and positive in situations and in people, with her compassionate heart and curiosity, she develops a capacity to find creative solutions to situations. She uses some adaptable new approaches and a willingness to play, which are all important ingredients of creativity.  Being creative requires a sense of mindfulness, and mindfulness in turn inspires creativity.

I don’t think we all need to be Pollyanna, even if that were possible. What we can do, however, is see her as inspiration for living a satisfying and mindful life.

© Copyright 2010 by Yael Schweitzer, LCSW, BC-DMT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Samantha

    October 22nd, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    I grew up idealizing Pollyanna and am not really sure why this fell out of favor?

  • heather

    October 23rd, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    it may seem like an easy thing to make choices bu then it really isn’t that easy,is it?
    what is a person to do if she is unable to make any choices and has lost confidence in herself because most of her past choices have proven to be bad ones?

  • Sandy

    October 25th, 2010 at 4:54 AM

    What’s so wrong with a little optimism every now and then? Even Pollyanna experienecd set backs but she was always able to see the bright side of things. Sounds like something we should want to do more of rather than expressing disdain for.

  • Yael Schweitzer

    November 1st, 2010 at 10:58 PM

    Thanks to those who responded and support my view of Pollyanna’s approach to life.
    To the commentator who asked about making choices – the choice that I referred to in the article is the choice of the right filter with which you view the world, suggesting that choosing a “finding the good” filter can influence the way you experience reality. In many occasions one of the goals in therapy is basically to help a client cultivate a positive filter and then choose to shift from a negative view of life to a more positive one.

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