In Praise of Pollyanna

Yep, that Pollyanna. This isn’t a book review; I’m thinking of Pollyanna herself and her attitude, her “Glad Game.” She is practically synonymous with that positive view on life which is gratitude. We tend to think of gratitude as ‘saying thank you’ – but it runs a whole lot deeper than that. Gratitude isn’t just saying thank you for a gift, it’s a matter of what you recognize as a gift.

Pollyann statue (18902222832)Pollyanna is a surprisingly unpopular child in this day and age; I have even heard “Pollyanna” used as a put-down or insult, when someone is deemed to be unacceptably positive or optimistic. And there, in a nutshell, you have the two fundamental ways of looking at life, the positive and the negative, the Pollyanna and the put-down.

One looks for the best in everything, and is thankful for it. The other sees the worst in everything, and is continually discontented and grumbling. I myself have been far too often guilty of the second, but I have hopes of reform. It will no doubt take practice, but hey, what’s neuroplasticity for, if not holding out the hope of lasting change?

Epicurus and Epictetus, the two Epic philosophers (the management apologizes for the irresistible pun) both had something to say on the subject of gratitude. The former advised people to “not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” The latter contented himself with noting that “he is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Different words, same idea. Count your blessings.

ravensbruck_camp_barracksOf course, counting other people’s blessings for them is seldom a good idea – unless you’re sharing their difficulties as well. Consider the astoundingly thankful Betsie ten Boom, who, according to her sister Corrie, was even thankful for the fleas which infested their barracks in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Why? Because of Paul’s urging to “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” Corrie admits to having been somewhat dubious, until she realized that their contraband Bible and totally forbidden Bible studies were escaping notice because none of the camp staff wanted to go in to inspect the place. God moves in mysterious (and sometimes itchy) ways…

So if Betsie could be grateful even for fleas in a concentration camp, surely we can find things to be grateful for in our own lives! Let us be honest with ourselves. Very few people will not be thankful if they are given an obvious gift, but the world still has an enormous number of basically negative people. I know – I’m a recovering negativeer myself. The problem isn’t that we are all basically pre-haunting Ebenezer Scrooges; the problem is that we don’t recognize most things as gifts. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, “When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”

StockingsYou may answer, because we don’t all believe in God. And perhaps you don’t, but it is still necessary for you to be grateful, even if you find yourself in the somewhat awkward position of being full of undirected thanks. Because people who are not grateful, who are never thankful for all the good things in their life but take them all for granted and focus only on the shortcomings and lacks – these people do not have good lives.

I don’t mean to suggest that if you expect bad, bad happens, and if you expect good, good happens. Your attitude isn’t in complete control of what happens to you, but it does control how you experience what happens to you. Life is a mix of good and bad for everyone. What matters is what you focus on and what you skate over. Beauty isn’t the only thing in the eye of the beholder.

Two years ago, 689,000 Facebook guinea-pigs users were subjected to an experiment: if what they saw on Facebook was filtered to skew more positive or more negative, would what they wrote move in the same direction? Answer: yes. There is quite a bit of controversy about this – not least the ethics of experimenting on people’s emotional balance without their permission, or, indeed, knowledge – but it raises an interesting point.

Looking at flowers? No – looking at Facebook.

So be grateful. Not just for the obvious things, but for the unlikely ones, the ones that aren’t immediately recognizable; the ones that fade into the background of your life, the blessings that are too big to notice. Because there’s a reason why the word “ungrateful” is so often followed by the word “wretch”.

As with so many things in life, gratitude is easier if you get in the habit of it. The Caped Gooseberry and I finish each day tucked up in bed thanking God for the good things of the day. It’s something the Caped Gooseberry started in the earliest days of our marriage, and we’ve made it a habit. It works for us, and it makes sure that at least once each day, we focus on seeing the good. Even the worst day, when reviewed in memory, proves to have hidden pockets of blessings for which to be thankful.

And happily, there is no statute of limitations on gratitude! You can be thankful for the same thing(s) for years; you can be thankful for something you just remembered from years ago. There’s no correct technique to worry about, just have at it! But if you’ve forgotten how to be grateful, take a course of Pollyanna.


I love this word. It means… well, as is so often the case with Greek words, it has a spread of meaning. It speaks of proportion, fairness and moderation. It is a question of what is appropriate, or fitting – like lagom. It is, in fact, the antithesis of taking more than one’s share. John V Taylor, in his book Enough is Enough, uses the word equipoise, meaning balance.

Beam and feet (close shot)“It is not poverty but balance we are after, and balance, I believe, may well mean for us in the affluent countries a reduction in our standard of living. But it would be an absurd exaggeration to say that for three-quarters of our population in Britain a reduction of standard would come anywhere near poverty.”

People tend to shy away from the idea of a reduction in their standard of living, but it is worth noting that ‘standard of living’ and ‘quality of life’ are not the same thing. ‘Standard’ refers largely to the physical, most notably wealth – how much you have, and how much you have compared to those around you. ‘Quality’ is more about how good your life is, rather than how many ‘goods’ you have.

This is rather like the difference between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is how little you have compared to what you need. Relative poverty is how little you have compared to those around you. I have always thought it strange that developed countries make such a to-do about so many percent of their population being under the poverty line, when the line is set as a percentage of the average. That means that if everyone in the country had their income doubled overnight, exactly the same number of people would be under the poverty line. Useful as an indicator of inequality, yes, but it doesn’t really say much about how many people are actually in genuine need – to my mind, a much more important thing to know.

Thomas B. Kennington - The pinch of poverty - Google Art Project
Moderation isn’t a slump in your quality of life. It doesn’t limit your enjoyment of the world. As the philosopher Epictetus said, “If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” Eating chocolate is a pleasure. Eating an entire block of chocolate results not in pleasure but nausea. Having nice things is a pleasure. Having your house so stuffed full of nice things that you can’t see most of them, let alone have room to appreciate them, is not a pleasure but a source of stress (and much unnecessary housework).

Moderation, in short, is not a miserly form of self-denial, but a way to more fully enjoy your life. But it can be very hard! It’s a struggle sometimes even to remember that we don’t have a duty to have, when our world is so geared to continual growth – the complete opposite of moderation.
John Taylor illustrates: “to take another example which is no flight of fancy, a well-known company produces 9 million articles a year, knowing that the demand for and actual use of these articles cannot exceed 5 million. The further 4 million are necessary for ‘growth’, though they meet no need. They have to be pushed (with a commission on sales) as courtesy Christmas presents which other firms may buy to distribute to their business associates. But any system of accounting which can describe as ‘growth’ 4 million articles thrown new-made into waste-paper baskets must be deliberately blinding itself to the reality of the whole.”

Papierkorb 2009
To look at it metaphorically, moderation dines well and ends the meal enjoyably replete. Consumerism – well, consumerism is Mr Creosote. Continual growth cannot go on forever. The After-Dinner Mint of Doom is coming. Of course, it doesn’t have to be doom all round. Some changes may be forced upon us in time, but most of us in the developed world currently have the ability to make our own choices about how much we consume, of what.

Perhaps it’s time to say, “Thank you, I’ve had enough.” Or, as a friend of mine taught her children to say, “Thank you, I have had an elegant sufficiency.” More cake? More toys? Thank you, I’ve had enough. What about some more clothes, or another little gadget – you don’t want to fall behind the times! Thank you, I have had an elegant sufficiency.

Of course, good manners can – and should – extend further than a polite refusal. Perhaps it’s time that we started asking questions of others at the table. May I help you to a share of these resources? Allow me to offer you a fair price… Can I serve you with some clean water?

Glass-half-fullἐπιεικής is not the boring middle-of-the-road. It is the pathway to a beautiful life, not only for us, but for others. And that’s why I love it.