On Being Pollyanna

My best friend calls me Pollyanna – and I don’t think it’s a compliment! It is said with exasperation as I try to look on the bright side of a situation, or I dare to be happier. Let’s face it, there are, after all, some who think that Pollyanna wasn’t living in the real world – yet, if you watch the film or read the books, that’s exactly where she was living!

Her way of living meant that ultimately she changed the world of those around her. Even when her life was less than totally positive. Sometimes, though, life goes beyond difficult, and gets really painful, or leaves us feeling lost, crushed or in despair. What happens then to a positive attitude or a determination to dare to be happier?

Deciding to live a life focussing on happiness doesn’t mean we avoid sadness, grief or pain. Nor does it mean we ignore these things, numbing ourselves from further chances to feel them, because when we shut ourselves down to any emotion, we shut ourselves down to ALL our emotions.

In doing that, we would then be unable to recognise happiness or joy when they come, and nor could we feel or appreciate these positive emotions fully. More importantly, we actually deny our humanity when we pretend these other emotions are not real – but our choice is not be stuck in them, and to do what we can to get us back to a happier place.

Death happens, serious illness happens, our lives can be turned upside down in an instant and we are faced with tough times – and sometimes all we can do to get through days by living moment by moment, one step at a time. And that’s okay, because we must treat ourselves with compassion and learn to be especially gentle on ourselves at such times.

What we can’t afford to do is to stop living, to allow ourselves to get stuck or frozen in that place. We will learn new ways of living in the landscape of the new world that faces us – or we won’t; and we will get stuck in the grief cycle or depression.

I worked in a mental health team for about 18 months, and I would ask the mental health nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists why two people going through similar life events had such different reactions. I would be less than totally satisfied with their responses – so much so that I changed my mind about doing a psychology degree. Instead, I started my own long research journey through medical journals, the Internet, seminars, NLP courses, many further debates and discussions and books. The whole happiness debate has entered the political arena now and generated a great deal of debate!

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. Does what someone says works, work? There can be no better example of this than Victor Frankl’s work. In the middle of the full horror of concentration camps, he learned that your attitude is always in your control. He said,

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He shows us beyond doubt that we can choose how to live – and this includes our choices on happiness – despite what has happened or is happening to us. I’ve found this to be true personally, though I did not always live this way. I now unashamedly, if at times imperfectly, walk this talk!

And I’m privileged to walk it alongside friends like Anthea Clarke, a psychologist who lost her son to cystic fibrosis at 42, but who has learned to find happiness even as she lives with her loss, and with Kim MacLeod who lost her young son to meningitis but runs Stress Positive, teaches people and children to be happier, and has set up the Glasgow Happiness Clubs.

You may criticise our beliefs, but you cannot deny our experiences. At the end of the day, we take responsibility for our past, our present and our future. We choose to live positively instead of choosing to grump our way through life. We dare to be happier – and as Pollyanna said – it’s really just as easy to do either.